Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Afterlife Wanderer, 1915, is cinema's first vampire film

(Both photos from The Afterlife Wanderer are courtesy of Daydreams Database: Cinema of the Russian Empire and Beyond, edited by Anna Kovalova and developed by Alexander Grebenkov.)

It seems the very first vampire film has been discovered. It's from 1915, titled The Afterlife Wanderer. (See stills from the film above). More below:

Film scholar Gary D. Rhodes is found in many of the pages of Plan9Crunch blog. He's written extensively about Bela Lugosi, and recently -- along with co-author Bill Kaffenberger, unearthed new information about Bela Lugosi's pre-Dracula years in the two-part Becoming Dracula series. 

A few years ago he also unearthed information on the lost Hungarian silent film, Drakula Halala, regarded as the first film to use Bram Stoker's tale as provenance, albeit loosely. However, as Rhodes notes, there's really no vampire in Drakula Halala. Just like there's no real vampire in Tod Browning's lost 1927 silent film, London After Midnight (see star Lon Chaney in a still from the film below).

Often the 1922 classic Nosferatu is regarded as the first vampire -- of the blood-sucking variety -- film (see star Max Schreck, who really resembles a rat, in a still below). But Rhodes has unearthed a 1915 Russian film, unfortunately lost, as likely the first film to feature a blood-seeking vampire.

As mentioned, it's called The Afterlife Wanderer, and it stars a young Olga Baclanova, who would later see her career surge in Hollywood. She's in a lot of films, but is perhaps best known for playing the evil, ill-fated circus vamp in Browning's "Freaks." 

On the Medium website, Rhodes writes in detail about the film, its history and how it earns the distinction of being cinema's first vampire film. Here is one paragraph from Rhodes' article:

"One review described The Afterlife Wanderer's title character as 'vampire who sucks the blood of the living people at night.' Another called her a 'vampire woman sucking blood from loved ones.' No doubt about it: she was a real vampire and a reel vampire."

According to Rhodes, reviews were mixed -- to be kind -- for The Afterlife Wanderer. It was banned by the mayor in one city. Baclanova's performance was subtly mocked by one reviewer. The Afterlife Wanderer will be discussed in detail in a book by Rhodes slated for publication next year, Vampires in Silent Cinema.

But there's lots of information on The Afterlife Wanderer, and other similar silent films, in the Medium piece. It can be read in its entirety at the Medium website. Rhodes forthcoming book, available next year, Vampires in Silent Cinema, can be pre-ordered here.

Monday, November 6, 2023

'40 Cult Movies' offers a perceptive, interesting new look at the genre

Review by Doug Gibson

Jon Towlson is pretty well known and respected as a genre writer. On the Plan9Crunch blog, we have read and enjoyed his book on pre-code horror films, “The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films: 1931 to 1936.” But he’s written several books and many articles. The guy’s a legit expert on films.


In “40 Cult Movies: 40 Cult Movies from Alice, Sweet Alice to Zombies of Mora Tau” (2023), he reviews and comments on a wide variety of films, from Freaks to Shivers, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Upgrade, to The Legend of Hell House to Drag Me to Hell.


It's a very diverse selection. Some of the films are familiar to all, some familiar to genre fans, and some are obscurities that Towlson notes have small cults. A Serial Killer's Guide to Life and Redeemer: Son of Satan are examples of films with a following in search of a sustained cult. I love that The Legend of Hell House is included. It’s a fantastic horror film overshadowed by another great film, The Haunting. Towlson aptly notes how the haunted house is perfect match for the plot and mood of ... Hell House.


One strength of Towlson’s writing is he can thoroughly discuss a film, its plot, cultural impact, its director's history, its relation to other films, and leave the reader satisfied with what has been read. That is a rare quality in writing.


In his introduction, Towlson makes it clear that if you don’t agree with everything, “that’s OK.” I love that in a writer. Towlson describes how many of his films underscore political or cultural themes. I agree with him in many cases, notably films from Penelope Spheeris, David Cronenberg, and George A. Romero, all with multiple films discussed in this book.


I had a harder time accepting that Invasion of the Body Snatchers represents 1950s conformity and even the McCarthy era. I know director Don Spiegel thought so but to me it’s solely a damn good science fiction piece. But Towlson presents excellent arguments for his takes and I’d likely have a tough time debating him.


The book is full of these types of interesting discussions on how films provoke the culture wars. Cronenberg’s Shivers is an example. Is this tale of a parasite infecting residents with sexual mania actually positive? Is it preferable to a stultified, consumerist life that decreases sexual interest? These, and other reviews of  films such as Martin, Alice Sweet Alice, and others will keep us reading through the night.


Also in his introduction, Towlson hopes that the book prompts readers to seek out the films he has covered. I have already started. In the past two weeks I have watched, for the first time, Horror Hospital, Alice Sweet Alice, Audrey Rose, and Shivers. I also re-watched, Redeemer: Son of Satan, a film I saw a long time ago as Class Reunion Massacre. All have been rewarding views.


This is the best book on cult films since Danny Peary's 1980s series of books. I hope Towlson will do this again with 40 more cult movies. He’s the writer to give us genre in-depth looks at these unique films. I hope we have three or four volumes. 40 Cult Movies would be a great companion buy with "TCM: Undergound: 50 Must-See Films", which we also reviewed on Plan9Crunch.


In his acknowledgments, Towlson writes, “I dedicate this book to anyone who has ever had a tape snarl up in his VCR.” Oh, that is apt. Reading about these films, many I watched for the first time on VHS (I even saw a few in Beta) brings so many great memories of heading to the VCR store and looking for a garishly decorated clamshell VHS. In those days they sold the sizzle more than the steak. I discovered that in films like Dr. Butcher M.D. …, Criminally Insane, Pranks, Bloody Birthday, etc. But there was steak amidst the sizzle, such as Martin, Evil Dead, and Torture  Dungeon, Andy Milligan’s take on Shakespeare that I’d love to see explored in a future volume of Cult Movies ...