Thursday, 28 June 2018

Whampires

As a result of my colleagues extolling its virtues (thanks guys!) I just watched the 1998 Blade. It's a rollocking ride full of occasionally-dodgey CGI, but solid fun nonetheless.

Wesley Snipes as Blade. If he forgets his sword he'll dice his enemies with his unbelievably sharp cheekbones.

Blade, an early and progressive example of a black superhero, is counterpointed in the film by the evil vampire Mercury, who dresses almost entirely in white. I was struck by this, not least of which because the vampire-in-white is an unusual, but not entirely uncommon trope. Its this trope I want to unpack and explore.

Vampires wearing black is mostly due to modern post-Great Schism Europeans from the 17th century onwards coding black as representing the macabre, death and the devil. Romantics like Percy Shelley and Lord Byron embraced it as the garb of melancholy. It is from this inheritance that Dracula, the primogenitor of the modern vampire, is rooted. When the vampire gets his first real scene in the novel he is described as:
"...a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere."

Dracula in black from the rare 1901 edition. Socks and shoes optional.

There is a slight wrinkle to this. Dracula was of course a product of the Victorian era when black was very much in. This was thanks to advances in dye technology and the populace aping the queen's garb. Victoria wore black for nigh on 40 years in a mark of respect for her late husband. Stoker's vampire was, therefore, not entirely unfashionable.

Queen Victoria, looking cheery.

In the early to mid 20th century subsequently vampires are represented as being archaic (and so Victorian) and hence they wear black to indicate this and the evil they embody. Count Orlock in the 1922 Nosferatu (Dracula in all but name, for copyright reasons) wears entirely black. Bella Lugosi's Dracula is mostly black (with flashes of white and red) and Christopher Lee's costume in the Hammer films is much the same. It's only later in the 20th century that vampires' wardrobes seem to enlarge a bit with the films like Interview with a Vampire, and Bram Stoker's Dracula.

But vampires in white emerge early on and here we get to the meat of this post. They are a mix of codings and tropes initially conceived to convey a specific meaning, but later white is sometimes simply a way to identify one individual in a crowd.

Early on in the novel Dracula, mention is made of a 'white lady' who may or may not be the ghost of a woman holed-up in the walls of Whitby Abbey. Mina mentions that "there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows". The white lady is a staple of Western folklore - a common ghost as women tended to die earlier in childbirth. They are also unhappy souls, as women might often suffer being jilted, losing children and suffer in miserable marriages. Thus they would become  vengeful ghosts. Since the Classical era it was commonly held suffering was a reason for a spirit to remain in limbo. There are also links to the Keres of ancient Greece - were female death-spirits who controlled the fate of souls. She is white because this is the colour of innocence in the West, the colour of the shrouds sometimes used to wrap corpses, the colour of bones and the colour of mist, often associated with ghosts and the spirit. It is this inheritance that Stoker weaves into his novel in the form of the vampire brides.

Clearly an engraving wouldn't convince anyone ghosts were real, but this photograph is cast-iron proof of the existence of white ladies. 

The brides appear in Stoker's novel although their relationship to Dracula is not clearly explained. They are referred to as 'sisters', though this may be evocative more than anything. Indeed, Stoker later describes them as 'weird sisters' in a reference to the witches in Macbeth. The colour of their garb is not described in the novel, but in their first screen appearance in the 1931 Lugosi Dracula (they don't feature in Nosferatu) they embody the white lady folklore. They are an uncomfortable mix of innocent, ghost and succubi - frightening and erotic.

The sisters from the 1931 Dracula. Hand-wringing obligatory, apparently.

From 1931 the brides become a staple of the Dracula legend and appear in almost every adaption in their wispy, busty, gossamer form. They even get their own movie in the 1960 The Brides of Dracula and in more oblique (and pornographic) form in the 1971 Twins of Evil.

Mention should be made at this point of (poor) Lucy - Mina's friend in Dracula who is the first to succumb to the vampire's curse. In the novel the early mention of the white lady ghost prefigures the death of Lucy. While in the full flush of (living) romance Lucy is described as "...looking sweetly pretty in her white lawn frock..". In later screen adaptions Lucy is represented as another white lady in death, but not in Dracula the novel. Indeed, Stoker implied Lucy is buried and later emerges wearing black (one of the newspaper reports in the novel relays a sighting of a 'Woman in Black'). The 1931 film streamlines the plot and rolls some aspects of Mina and Lucy together. It is here when Mina/Lucy is seen post-bite in white indicating her shift to becoming an analogue of the brides, cementing her entry in the ranks of the undead women.

Bella Lugosi pulling that face you make when you deadlift something far too heavy.

The 1959 Dracula with Christopher Lee follows suit, and Lucy-the-vampire wears a simple (if figure-hugging) white smock.  In a stroke of costuming genius, Eiko Ishioka put Lucy in her coffin dressed in her white wedding dress in the 1992 Bram Stoker's Dracula. To the vampire-in-white-trope is now added the miserable failed-bride-to-be, robbed of her wedding day and denied the only future deemed permissible to a Victorian society woman - marriage and children.

Sadie Frost as Lucy facing off against Anthony Hopkins. Who wouldn't be scared if Hannibal Lector came at you?

Coming to the post-Hammer modern era the coding of white for vampires becomes more multifarious and complex. White vampires lose their connections to the white lady folklore, sometimes for good reasons, at others seemingly for reasons of fashion.

Jim Jarmusch's 2013 Only Lovers Left Alive is a rare example of white being a well thought out choice. Eve wears white as a counterpoint to Adam, who embodies the Romantic ideal of a vampire. Tom Hiddleston is all sulks and moping emo while Tilda Swinton is far more perky and positive and her garb refers to her fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.

 Tom Hiddleston as a sleepy toddler nuzzles Tilda Swinton's hung-over mother.

Seemingly arbitrary but undeniably stylish is the aforementioned Mercury from the 1998 Blade. I'd love to have a well thought out reason why she might be in white, but I don't. Nonetheless, she embodies a degree of then-fashionable heroin-chic with her bony silhouette, dark eyes and lips which tap into the zeitgeist of the time.

Arly Jover as Mercury. What vampires look like after a heroin binge.

Next we have the The Twins from the 2003 The Matrix Reloaded. I list them here because they are a good example of the way the vampire myth has been explored in different ways in the post-Hammer era. In a series of movies where most people dress in black, it's not unreasonable that dressing a pair in white to make them stand out struck the costume department as a good idea. Along with dreadlocks and pimp jackets. There is some convoluted back story to them being older versions of the series' Agents, which will have to suffice for any reasoning. I say this in a slightly disparaging way because their appearance was greeted with some not-unreasonable hostility by those claiming The Twins were emblematic of Hollywood's negative portrayal of characters with albinism.

The Twins created by The Wachowskis, showing they might possibly know more about gender politics than racial politics.

Following from this topic I want to finish with a few nods to modern vampire-eque characters who are white, even though they don't wear white. I want to name-check Elric from the Michael Moorcock novels and Prince Nuada from Hellboy II: The Golden Army. While vampires have always been 'deathly pale' these two take this to an extreme with their head-to-toe albino appearance.

Elric of Melniboné with his 'confused' face from trying to unpick Moorcock's cosmology.

Luke Goss as Prince Nuada Silverlance. The look you get when your boy band career finishes.
 
To conclude this whistle-stop tour, vampires-in-white (or 'whampires') have come a long way since the white lady folklore of European history, bleeding into pop culture and bumping into political topics of intersectionality and racial identity along the way. If you have any examples please post them in the comments. I realise I shamefully haven't covered off comics or video games so examples from these categories would be ace.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Why Hellraiser is rubbish

"Wait!" I hear horror fans cry, "It's one of the best and most original films of the genre!" And you are correct. Except I'm talking about the franchise. The first movie is awesome, but most (if not all) of the nine sequels have failed to live up to the original. How can you make nine movies in such a way that none are great? Here's how...

Greed. That's how. Which is appropriate given the nature of the Cenobites - dimension-hopping murder-bastards who prey on the lustful and sinful. It transpires that Dimension Films got their mitts on the license some time in the late 80s or early 90s, after the first sequel. Yes, folks, that's Mr Harvey Weinstein's company. To be fair (and put fashionable Weinstein-bashing aside) Disney owned Dimension whet it picked up the rights in the late 80s and made six of the sequels. Then Dimesnion was sold to The Weinstein company in 2005, who made a further two sequels.

To retain the rights the owners have had to keep 'exploiting' them. No, this is not a lust-demon pun but the actual term used when a licensee has to keep 'doing stuff' with an IP in order to retain the rights they have. If they let their rights fall fallow by not doing stuff then the rights revert to the original owner. Failure to exploit is why Kenner/Hasbro made the most epic fail of losing the Star Wars license in the late 80s. The need to keep exploiting is why, until 2015, Sony kept making lacklustre Spiderman movies. So Dimension, under two owners, has been pumping out low-budget movies for the last thirty years in order to retain their rights.

I should, at this point, say I've got a lot of sympathy for the creatives behind these movies. I've just watched the 2018 Hellraiser Judgment [sic] and it's not great, but it's also not that bad. The team is doing the best they can with IP they clearly love. But with no budget and no marketing support. And if you think that's bad just imagine the added pressure of Mr Weinstein descending on you if you mess it up.

The reason I'm writing this piece is because the IP has such potential. It's a shame to see it exploited in both senses of the term. Watching Judgment got me thinking about the influence of the first movie, and how awesome some of the spiritual-successors to the original are. Here are some of the best:

Agony is a video game I've been watching for a while and it went to full release earlier this year. It takes the player into a full-on body-horror vision of hell, and pulls no punches with some bonkers creature design. How awesome would it be if Hellraiser did that? Turns out I'm not the first person to think of this. Hellraiser: Origins was an indie project that tried to reboot the series with a grand scope but, alas, never got off the ground.

I'm a big fan of Silent Hill in all its guises. While its visual influences are rather more diverse than Hellraiser, it draws on the underpinnings of the 80s classic. Imaginatively-named 'Pyramid Head' (shown above) appears as an enigmatic (if less loquacious) exuctioner in the vein of Pinhead. Perhaps it's time for Hellraiser to ditch the comedy-body-horror-fetish tropes it's fallen into (I'm looking at you, here, Mr 'CD Head' from Hellraiser: Hell on Earth) and hire a art director as inspiring as Masahiro Ito (who did the original creature concepts for Silent Hill) or Patrick Tatopoulos (who worked on the movie).

Alex Proyas' 1998 Dark City features antagonists who are clearly heavily inspired by the Cenobites. What I really like about this movie is the twist you discover mid-way through. Without spoilering it for you, it would be great if such a mind-bending cosmology were injected into Hellraiser. Sequels and comics have indeed given a slightly garbled backstory to the Cenobites, but something more surreal, menacing and down-right inspired would do the IP justice.

Wish-listing aside, it looks like the Hellraiser franchise may be in for a period of change, for good or for ill. With the declaration of bankruptcy by the Weinstein Company in February this year Lantern Capital emerged as the winner of the studio's bankruptcy auction. It remains to be seen what happens to Hellraiser. Sometimes the sale of a company triggers clauses in a license where the licensee's rights revert to owners, but given this seemed not to happen when Disney sold Dimension to The Weinstein Company that doesn't look likely. Lantern may choose to break-up and sell on the assets, so who knows where Dimension may end up. 80s geek IP is big business at the moment, with companies like Paradox gobbling up IPs like White Wolf (with their World of Darkness IPs) and more recently Harebrained Schemes (including the BattleTech IP). Even Freddie is back in 2018 with a new movie Nightmare: Return to Elm Street. Here's hoping the eventual owner sees fit to do something with the IP rather than just exploiting it in every sense of the term.

Further reading:
A Very Brief History of the Hellraiser Franchise
How we made Hellraiser
12 Sharp Facts About Hellraiser

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Stormtonnian Retributors

Need some heavy-duty-choppy backup? Then summon the Retributors! Caveats apply.

It's been a long time since I posted my first unit of Stormtonnians. I actually managed to paint these Retributors towards the end of last year, but the house move got in the way of shooting and posting them.

There isn't much to say about these chaps technique-wise. They pretty much adhere to the same paint recipe as the first unit. The axe heads are from the older Chaos kits and there were a... challenge to attach. The cloth wound around the shafts hides the rather awkward join. I chose more ostentatious 'hats' for this lot, as befits their status as definitely-not-arrogant elites. Each carries a small kite shield on his back (in place of the normal 'backpack'). The heraldry matches throughout each individual.

I've got better at taking WIP shots so here are a few. I find sharing stuff with friends on WhatsApp is a good way keep motivated and get feedback.





Fun fact! The little white porcelain 'mountain' behind the guys in the lower shot is a chopstick holder. They make excellent brush rests when you're painting and ensure you don't accidentally roll your brushes around and ruin the bristles in so doing. You idiot.

So, what are the caveats? Well, turns out 'teleporting' these guys into a Skirmish game isn't ideal. Such games rely on speed and decisiveness. Once they have deployed, the Retributors have to plod over to the enemy (say, some angry Fyreslayers) while the combustible little fellows repeatedly smack your outnumbered Liberators until they die. Cue the orange menace ganging up on the Johnny-come-lately Retributors.


Regardless, it was fun to get all the shiny guys together on the table at once. Here they are, full of beans, before it dawns on them that they're about to get their behinds whipped by some small, angry, naked guys.


The next step for this collection is to convert Steelheart's Champions so I can bring the glory of The Lady to Shadespire. The kits are beautiful and their configuration will mean the head swaps will be easy.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Night Lords squad plus tutorial

At long last I've started work on the Marines for my little Night Lords army. These guys are loosely based on the characters from the Aaron Dembski Bowden novels. Hence their leader (Talos) carrying a looted Blood Angels power sword. All the components are Citadel plastics and most of the trophies are pillaged from the Undead range. I wanted to try painting the skulls on the helmets as I really like the idea that most Marine livery is paintwork over factory-standard suits (plus this solution is quite Rogue Trader). I was pleased how it came out and I look forward to trying it on some MKIII helmets. That said, I do intend eventually to mix in a few of Forge World's sculpted helms.


Some folks on Facebook were asking for a tutorial so here's my process:

Armour: Undercoat black. Airbrush metallic blue all over then mix in more silver and do a light zenithial highlight with the airbrush. Once dry, gloss varnish the areas you wan to apply to decals to, then affix the decals (the gloss will stop the clear film supporting the design clouding). Once the decals are set, wash the whole mini with Drakenhof Nightshade but dab on Lahmian Medium onto the larger areas where you don't want too much shade (like shoulder pads). The Ladmian ensures you don't get 'tide' marks and you can use it to 'wipe' away any excess ink while retaining a smooth finish when dry. For the crackles (which I tend to do last) delicately mark out the pattern using a mid blue on a very fine brush, then do one or two highlights by adding more white, keeping the lighter highlights to the centre of the pattern so its 'source' looks brighter. Your last highlights should be applied using only a few bristles so they're super-fine.
Red; Paint Mephiston Red, wash with Baal Red, then highlight with Evil Sunz Scarlet.
Brown: Paint Dryad Bark, wash with Badab Black if necessary, then highlight by adding Screaming Skull.
Gold: Paint with a mix of Retributor Gold and Leadbelcher (this cools the gold to a paler tone) then drop some Reikland Fleshshade (matt) into corners. On armour do this liberally so it flows out beyond the trim to cover the main plate so you get a sense of rust spreading beyond the trim.
Bone / skin: paint Dryad Bark then paint white leaving the Bark in recesses. Wash with Reikland Fleshshade then drop Nuln Oil into the recesses, then highlight up with white.
Silver: Heavy drybrush with Leadbelcher then simply wash with Nuln Oil Gloss. Dab on Reikland Flesshade (matt) in patches to form rust. On larger, flatter surfaces (like the drum-magazine on the Heavy Bolter) blend up by adding silver to your Leadbelcher base.
Eyes: Paint red then add a touch of orange
Base: Coat with a mix of polyfiller, small stones, sand and black paint (the paint stops you needing to lots of work later to darken this mix, otherwise it'll dry white). Heavy drybrush with Dryad Bark, then add increasing amounts of Screaming Skull up to pure Screaming Skull. Work Forge World rust pigments into the recesses and up the mini's legs.
Blue black: This is for the robes of the serfs and so forth. From a black undercoat highlight up with Mordian Blue (yep, I still have a pot of this) up through Macragge Blue then add white.

[Edit - I forgot about BLOOD!!!] This is a mix of Blood for the Blood God plus a bit of black ink. I do the not-terribly-reliable thing of holding a drop of this on a tooth pick in front of the mini, then firing a burst of air from an airbrush at it, spraying the mini. If it goes well (and there's no real guarantee of that, kids) it forms tiny 'micro drops' which look very realistic. Best done into a washing up bowl turned on its side, as you're going to get a lot of the stuff everywhere.
So there you have it! Best of luck and drop me a line in the comments if you have any questions.
ΔVE ÐØMINVS NΘЖ

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Link roundup

Normal service will resume shortly. Here is some interesting stuff to keep you going:
 

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Night Lords Cultists

The main thrust of my Night Lords collection is going to be Heresy-era Marines. Why, then, would I start monkeying around with a bunch of Cultists?

Two reasons - first, the army will also be used for 40K, Kill Team and Necromunda (where, thanks to an excellent White Dwarf article, you can now field Chaos Cultists). Cultists play a big part in these systems and are good value as disposable troops who can sit on an objective or bog down opponents. Second, the Night Lords novels introduce some fantastic Legion-serf characters who are great inspiration for Cultist conversions.

So let me introduce to you (from left to right) Some Dude, Septumus, Octavia, Hound and Maruc.

The novels' characters served more as inspiration so there are little nods to them here and there. Like Hound's diminutive stature and his shotgun and Septimus' bionic eye. Some Dude wears a Drukhari Scourge helmet which harks back to the Bleeding Eyes Raptor units in the novels, who are portrayed as very bird-like with some disgusting avian habits.

The stand out model for me is Octavia the Navigatrix. She will represent the Witch who supports the Chaos Cult gang in games of Necromunda. I eventually settled on a weird diving-bell helmet rather than trying to sculpt on her third eye (or the bandanna she uses to conceal it). I also added her pony tail of black hair, which in the novels gets increasingly more 'ratty' as the haughty noble spends time in the service of the Legion. Below are some WIP shots of her.


Given my Marines will be dull metallic blue, I needed a matt solution for the Cultists' dark robes. The black highlighted with blue gives a real 'midnight' feel. I might roll this out elsewhere in the collection too. Amusingly, the combo of blue-black and red makes these guys feel a bit like old-skool Cawdor gangers.


Next up, more Cultists. Or some Heresy Marines. Or some Spawn. Depending on what I finish first.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Ask yourself: Have I got the budget for demons?

When is it best to put your demons on screen? When you've got a budget to do them properly, that's when.

M.R. James' tale Casting the Runes has an enduring appeal as one of his best tales, and rightly so. Published in 1911 it has all the classic elements of British gothic horror - an eccentric and malevolent antagonist living in an old abbey, runic death cards, unexplained events all topped-off by a rather nasty bit of supernatural payback. It has been adapted several times for the screen, the best of which is undoubtedly the 1957 film Night of the Demon directed by Jacques Tourneur. Tenebrous Kate has just posted a brilliant critical appraisal of this cinematic masterpiece. So I'm going to talk about it's slightly more rubbish cousin.

The BBC worked its way through many of James' tales in its excellent Ghost Story for Christmas series which ran throughout the 1970s (and was more recently resurrected). Perhaps because of the success of Demon they decided not to adapt Runes. Thus it was the rival channel ITV that brought the tale to the small screens in 1979 with the help of Lawrence Gordon Clark (who had worked extensively on the BBC's series). And he proved the BBC's caution justified.

Clark's version is laudably progressive but, ultimately, a hot mess of a show. He transposes the action to a modern-day big city and reenvisions the protagonist as a female journalist. It starts strong with beaucolic shots of the British rural landscape in snow and the first killing is quite horrible. He works in a bit of giant-insect horror to good effect. This harks back to a scene in the short story where a group of children are terrified by the antagonist, but also references some of James' best tales which put giant spiders or sawflies to good use. However, the show loses its momentum and falls apart in the second half thanks to poor pacing and the heroine's agency diminishing. The opportunities James' interesting antagonist Karswell provides are largely wasted (in stark contrast to Niall MacGinnis' amazing turn in the 1957 film). My main issue, though, is the rather unpalatable ending which implies that several hundred innocents die as part of the revenge on Karswell. This leaves an unpleasant taste and makes you kind of wish the giant spider had had its way with the heroine in Act 1.

All told, pretty much the only way Clark's version triumphs over Tourneur's is with its depiction of the titular demon. Clark keeps the beast off camera for the most part, and the few instances we see it are so well composed or shot that the thing is really quite unsettling. By contrast, a rather wonky rubber puppet is universally agreed to be the biggest let down in Tourneur's otherwise impeccable film. It's a lesson put to excellent use later in movies like Alien, Jaws and The Exorcist.