Thursday, September 24, 2009

Blood, Stitches, and My Old Pal Frankie

A while back my dentist told me that due to overly brutal brushing habits and bad luck in the gum genetics department that I needed to have oral sugery done. I finally went in and did it.It involved cutting tissue from the roof of my mouth and transplanting it in various places along my gumline. I was blissfully unaware of the procedure itself, as the surgeon gave me two little blue pills to take a half-hour before the procedure, plus IV sedation once I got there. I remember seeing two of everything at that point. The rest of the day is kind of a blur, except I do recall waking up with a mouthful of blood ( a common thing with this procedure, I'm told)...I got up and went to the bathroom, and spit up about a cupful or so of blood, then went back to the couch to crash again. The next day , I was more lucid, but with a mouthful of pain. So, with a fresh bunch of sutures, a monosyllabic grunting vocabulary, and a dim view of things in general, I decided it was a good day to watch the original 1931 Frankenstein.

I got a copy of the Universal Frankenstein Legacy DVD set at Half-Price Books a while back. It's a collection I'd been meaning to get for some time, but hadn't gotten around to it yet. Usually Half-Price doesn't have a lot of DVDs that interest me, but when I saw this 2-disc set for 12 bucks ( they were having a sale), it seemed meant to be. I hadn't watched these classics in a long time , and resembling the monster in question, it seemed a perfect film to watch that day.

Frankie and I go way back ( I know that Frankenstein is actually the doctor, not the monster, but I'm one of those that was brought up calling the monster by his creator's other words, if you're a nit-picker, deal with it). The big, flat-topped amalgamation of dead parts brought to life was one of, if not the first, monsters I'd ever seen. I was about 3 years old or so, and I can remember getting out of bed at night, and on weekends my parents would be watching Creature Feature on the local ABC affiliate out of South Bend, Indiana. They would show what I would refer to back then as 'monster movies' on Friday and Saturday nights. This was back in the Dark Ages when there was not yet such things as cable TVs or home VCRs, much less DVDs. TV stations used to show a lot more movies back then, and they were often black-and-white classics(and not-so-classics,too)...something unheard of these days, except for TCM, maybe. It was either Frankenstein or The Mummy that I saw first, at least those are the two ones I can recall seeing at a really young age. Boris Karloff played the monsters in both films, so I guess he's partially to blame for how I turned out, because seeing these classic movies formed my love for horror way back then.

I remember being scared as Hell of Frankenstein when I was little...I even remember a nightmare I had, somewhere between the ages of 3 and 5, I think, where Frankenstein chased me down the corridor of an old castle, and grabbed me and lifted me up over his head, presumably to smash me on the floor or something, but I of course woke up and ran to my folks' room, bawling my rotten little head off. Still, even though Frankenstein scared me, I was fascinated by him. My parents still laugh to this day, because during a horror movie I would get scared, run out of the room...and always come creeping back in, unable to stay away from the black-and-white images on the little TV set in the otherwise darkened living room. There was something there, calling to me, speaking to me, even though I couldn't quite understand it yet. I recall my neighbor, an older kid named Rusty, who was an excellent artist, drew a very nice picture of Frankenstein for me, and I carried that thing around with me for the longest time. I sometimes wonder whatever became of Rusty...I hope he's still drawing today. That drawing meant the world to me then. I also remember having those old Aurora model kits of Dracula and the Phantom of the Opera, with the glow-in-the-dark parts. My parents put them together for me, because I was too young to manage a model kit...Hell, I can barely manage one today, for that matter. Somewhere along the line I got a Frankenstein trash can, and a Frankenstein action figure, both of which I still have to this day.

As I got older ( and by older, I mean about 7 or so), I saw the true spirit behind the monster that I intuitively saw as a toddler. Frankenstein was scary looking, and yes, he did kill some people, but really, he was just a big doofus who wanted what we all do...friends and understanding. This especially came clear in the first sequel, Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), when the monster learns to speak, and briefly has those things he wants so badly, only to have them taken from him. My heart broke along with his when I watched , and my heart still goes out to that giant, stitched-up monster when I see it to this day.

Human feelings aside, I suspect, deep down, that one of the reasons I liked Frankenstein ( and the other monsters) so much is because they were scary. I don't know why this is...I just know that on some deep, primeval level I've always been drawn to monsters and scary stuff, as well as superheroes ( which I guess is the flip side of monsters and horror, though there is a lot of crossover territory...Batman, for example). As I got older and quickly realized that I wasn't one of those kids that 'fit in', I began to identify with monsters more, as they are typically outsiders, especially Frankie, since unlike , say, Dracula, he isn't evil, just misguided. Sometimes the people around you seem a lot like the villagers in the Frankenstein films...a mindless, judgemental mob out to get rid of anything different, unwilling to take the time to look beneath the surface. One can hardly blame Frankie for throwing a few villagers around.

I plan on covering the Frankenstein films in more depth in October when I do my Halloween Horror film reviews, but for today, I just wanted to 'talk' a bit about an old friend of mine that I got to see for the first time in years, and how he's responsible for getting me into 'monster movies' all those years ago. Thanks, Frankie..I owe you.

Safety tip: Kids, take swimming lessons before playing with Frankie...

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I remember , long ago, when comics and animation (or, manga and anime, if you will) from Japan were a rare find. Now there's aproliferation of this Japanese entertainment form here in the States...there are shows on saturday morning, tons of product in comic book stores, and even big chain booksellers such as Barnes and Noble have shelves and shelves of digest-sized manga volumes, ready to be read. These days, I don't read as much manga or watch as much anime as I have in the past, but every once in a while a title pops up that interests me...and such a title is Hellsing, created by Kohta Hirano.

The series is named after a British organization, which is in turn named after the family that has run it...yes, it's that Hellsing family, famous for hunting monsters. Also known as the Royal Order of Protestant Knights, the group is like a secret service that goes after supernatural entities such as ghouls, vampires, etc, also referred to as Midians. Integra Wingates Hellsing is the leader of the group, a tough, no-nonsense lady, who isn't afraid to take up gun and sword and get her hands dirty to get the job done. Integra's ace in the hole, however, is an agent known as Alucard ( spell it backwards). Alucard is a vampire who hunts other Midians. He is unaffected by sunlight ( 'I just hate it', he says in vol. 3 of the manga) and holy relics ( he often has a cross in his teeth, like a toothpick). he's a very powerful vampire, and how the great Dracula ened up working for his enemies' family is a mystery that is unraveled as the series progresses. The third main character is Seras Victoria, a young policewoman, who wounded unto death, is offered unlife by Alucard, and accepts it. She takes a job and residence with the Hellsing agency, trying to adapt to being a vampire. It has its advantages ( she can now wield huge ordinance easliy), but she is reluctant to drink blood, not wanting to completely lose her humanity ( '..if I do drink the blood, it feels like something will have ended forever', she says in vol. 2). Other supporting characters of note are Walter, the butler, aka The Angel of Death, who helped Alucard fight Nazi Midians in WWII; Captain Bernadette of the Wild Geese, mercenaries hired by Hellsing in their war against evil; and Father Anderson, an Irish priest who works for Iscariot XIII, a Catholic anti-Midian branch of the Vatican, who is good with blades and has regenerative abilities.

One aspect of Japanese manga/anime that I like is the creators' ability to take a genre or character that's been around for a long time, and put a radically different spin on it. Hellsing definately fits the bill here. Not only do we have Dracula working for his enemies, but his character is interestingly writen by Hirano. Our vampire protagonist goes about his business with a sort of detacthed amusement, which is probably how a powerful immortal may view life, or un-life , as the case may be. As the series goes on we see more in -depth Alucard's feelings and why he feels the way he does.

Alucard is also a visually striking character. Tall, lean, with long black hair, usually smiling with a mouth full of fangs, he is typically dressed in a red trenchcoat and wide-brimmed hat over a black suit, with heavy boots on his feet and red/gold sunglasses on. He can go from charming to bloodthirsty on a drop of a dime, his grin going from sly to crazed. Emotions and feeling notwithstanding, Hellsing is primarily a horror/action story, and our hero is as bloodthirsty (literally), if not moreso, than the monsters he battles...a scene in vol. 3 illustrates this well. While in South America searching for their enemies, Alucard and company are staying in a posh hotel, where they are besieged by commandos. They are made short and bloody work of, and from outside the hotel, onlookers witness bodies hurled out of top-story windows, to land atop the flagpoles in front of the hotel, after which Alucard calmly walks out the front door, grisly corpses dripping above. This scene harks back to one of Alucard's earlier titles-The Impaler.

Besides being inhumanly strong and fast, Alucard is alsao armed with a pair of guns made specially for killing Midians- the .454 Casull, which fires 13mm rounds made of alloyed steel and silver from a cathedral cross; and the Jackal, whcih fires 13mm armor piercing explosive rounds with Macedonium silver casings tipped with blessed mercury ( 'The ultimate anti-freak combat pistol...this isn't something a human could handle'). The Jackal is black with the inscription 'Jesus Christ Is In Heaven Now' along the barrel. Needless to say, like many other Japanese manga/anime, Hellsing is very violent, so it's most definately not for young kids.

Another aspect of the story I find interesting is the way the main religious groups are portrayed. The Protestant Knights use Christian iconography ( the Jackal is a good example), but seem to have a pragmatic view of stopping evil, finding the best method is to fighht fire with fire. The Catholic Iscariot XIII gruop hates the Hellsing group, mostly because they have an unholy creature as an agent, but in later volumes the Iscariot group , and other groups of religious knights, are shown to be fanatical, and a bit power hungry. I don't know if Hirano was expressing opinions when writing this, or was merely trying to have a lot of conflict in his story, but for whatever reason, it does make for a good tale.

Hellsing is published in the U.S. by Dark Horse in digest-sized volumes, nine of which have been put out here. There are two different anime miniseries out, one simply called Hellsing, the other called Hellsing Ultimate, which I think is more faithful to the original manga from which it's based on. I reccomend the Ultimate series for watching, and I highly reccomend the manga for readers. Like other manga artists, Hirano's art improves with each volume, and there's some dark humor in the story as well as pop-culture references,drama, horror, action, and blood-lots of blood, actually. But, what did you expect from a Japanese vampire comic...this ain't no Twilight. Hellsing gets a hearty Beast's Seal of approval. Check it out.

'The Bird Of Hermes Is My Name,
Eating My Wings To Make Me Tame' -
inscription on Alucard's coffin