Monday, October 28, 2013

E.J. Ehlers Recommends Vampire Action...From BEYOND THE GRAVE

(TODAY'S GUEST: Under the auspices of Airport Books, archivist/writer Jeff Lester has unearthed a quality piece of mid 70's action/horror/erotica. The legacy of the late E.J. Ehlers remains shrouded in mystery, but his/her action/horror/erotica opus Erotic Vampire Bank Heist, thanks to Lester and Airport Books, is now available on Kindle to...inspire a new generation of fans. Lester has kindly allowed us to re-post an abridged list of the films thought to have inspired Ehlers' book - the complete list can be found here.)

Thanks to the publication of Erotic Vampire Bank Heist, a few people have written to ask us about E.J. Ehlers’ favorite vampire movies. Although Ehlers died in a freak doughnut glazing accident in the late Seventies and is therefore unable to personally assemble such a list, we do know that Ehlers was a huge movie buff. So the staff here at Airport Books thought it would be fun to make a list of vampire movies Ehlers considered noteworthy, from journal entries, correspondence, and, of course, explicit and implicit references in EVBH

It is our hope this list, with its very understandable cut-off date, will provide the vampire aficionado with some new and/or unexpected vampire films to check out during this Halloween season, as well as a bit of insight into the crafting of this unusual novel.

 Dracula (1931):  Although female safecracker Emily Malone is the protagonist of EVBH, her lover, Count Dracula, is clearly the “male lead” and it is his plan to steal a precious artifact from the Vampire Mafia that sets Ehlers’ book in motion. Described by another character as looking like the ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, Ehlers’ Dracula nonetheless takes more than a few cues from Bela Lugosi.  ”It’s a damn shame [director] Tod Browning was unable to master film’s transition from silent to sound,” Ehlers wrote a friend in the early ‘70s. “The silent moments in his sound films—Lugosi’s march toward the camera in Dracula, the rainstorm finale of Freaks—are electrifying, moments of pure cinema. Unfortunately, the viewers must themselves slog through poorly recorded, poorly written dialogue to get to the good stuff.”  

Considering Erotic Vampire Bank Heist includes bank vault threesomes, epic vampire fistfights, slow-motion shootouts, and a steady stream of sex scenes, it’s probably unsurprising Ehlers was a fan of “the good stuff,” and preferred thrills over dialogue.

Planet of the Vampires (1965):  ”I wish I knew what it was about Mario Bava,” Ehlers wrote in another piece of correspondence to a friend. “Even as I find myself sinking into the depths of desperate boredom, I can’t look away from the gorgeous images on the screen.  It’s like being mesmerized, hypnotized, and I find myself longing to break the damn spell and just walk out of the theater.  And nowhere is that more the case than with this movie. It’s not just about life on another planet; it feels like it was made by life from another planet.”  

Although Ehlers went on to be much more positive about Danger: Diabolik (“thank god, the man finally made a fun movie!”), and although Planet of the Vampires isn’t explicitly mentioned in Erotic Vampire Bank Heist, Ehlers’ damning-with-the-faintest-of-praise makes it a fine candidate for this offbeat list. It’s a remarkable achievement of aesthetic over budget and (unfortunately) common sense and good storytelling.

I Am Legend/The Omega Man (1971):  We know Ehlers was a huge fan of the writings of Richard Matheson (1926-2013) and the descriptions of vampire physiology in Erotic Vampire Bank Heist would’ve been impossible without the dissection and experimentation scenes in I Am Legend.  Although neither is referenced in EVBH, correspondence shows Ehlers was frustrated with the big budget Hollywood adaptation of Matheson’s novel: “Give Charlton Heston a weapon and an opportunity to chew the scenery and I’m generally more than happy,” Ehlers wrote. “But The Omega Man takes away [protagonist] Neville’s desperate lust and replaces it with Heston’s smugness, which isn’t a very good trade at all.  Between exchanging the plague in the novel for a bio-chemical war between China and Russia, and making the vampires into a cult called “The Family” the story becomes a GOP wet dream, where the last white man on Earth is the only protector and deserving beneficiary of Western Civilization.”

“What’s really a shame,” Ehlers continues, “is that this is an entirely viable interpretation to Matheson’s novel: by setting the book in Southern L.A. at the time white flight was beginning to happen, Neville’s struggle against his neighbors does give the book a strong racist subtext. I Am Legend does play into and off of the paranoia and fear of obsolescence felt by the white working class male.  But the book’s ending packs its punch precisely by the way we can understand and identify Neville’s own monstrousness by the end. To turn him into a suffering Christ-figure is exactly the sort of thing antithetical to Matheson’s point and exactly the sort of “pity the poor white guy” trope we need far less of from Hollywood.

“Still,” Ehlers concludes, “give me those opening twenty minutes!  I could happily watch Heston drive around a deserted Los Angeles forever. Sometimes a bad movie can inspire us just as much as a great one.”

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972): Ehlers apparently wasn’t much of a fan of the Hammer productions, a fact perhaps reflected in EVBH’s lack of anything like a Van Helsing figure, but he was indeed aware of them, and this last movie was perhaps a progenitor for what would become Erotic Vampire Bank Heist.  “Although the Hammer movies are savvy enough to capitalize on [Christopher]Lee’s commanding presence and [Peter] Cushing’s intelligence and ability, they rarely give them anything interesting to do.  While this is still the case with [Dracula A.D. 1972], at least the movie has a new setting, and I thought Christopher Neame did a wonderful job of trying to out-Malcolm McDowell Malcolm McDowell (impossible as that is to do) as young thug Johnny Aculard.

“Indeed, with its portrait of bored English teenagers throwing a black mass for kicks, Dracula A.D. 1972 has a far creepier subtext of decadence and lasciviousness than exists on the movie’s surface.  Wouldn’t it be a kick to see a movie where Dracula arises from his grave and finds himself the ultimate square, outdone and overwhelmed by hot-blooded thrill-seekers?  It’s frustrating how close this film comes to being exactly that, even as it hews to the utter opposite.”  Written several years after this exchange, Erotic Vampire Bank Heist is in many ways exactly the scenario Ehlers wished for here. 

Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973):  Playing at a drive-in as two characters meet for a lonely tryst, Scream, Blacula, Scream appears early in EVBH, probably to tip the reader to the idea the book’s concerns are both more timely and more lowbrow than they are timeless and literary.A B-movie that plays it straight and leaves the audience to decide on how campily it should be received, Scream, Blacula, Scream keeps the body count high as it builds to the satisfyingly violent finale of a squad of cops busting up Blacula’s vampire stronghold.  

This movie also holds an ace up its sleeve: a vivacious Pam Grier in her prime, even though she isn’t used to best effect.  Nonetheless, we at Airport Books think it’s very possible the Pam Grier of 1973—both in the more traditional role here as imperiled film heroine and in her more groundbreaking roles of Coffy and Foxy Brown—inspired the crafting of Emily Malone, EVBH’s heroine, even as Scream, Blacula, Scream preceded the trend of juxtaposing ageless vampires in modern settings. In short, it’s a fun movie that’s a little ahead of its time.

Female Vampire (1973):  Also known as The Bare-Breasted Countess or The Countess with Bare Breasts, Jess Franco’s 1973 Belgian-French sexploitation film avoids mention in EVBH but for a single line from the film spoken by one of the characters three-quarters of the way through the novel. That line—”I earnestly wish an end would come to this bloody race I am forced to run”—may well be the key to much of the novel’s thematic concerns (to the extent you’re willing to believe the failed porn cheapie has one).  

In Female Vampire, the line is uttered in voiceover by the world-weary Countess von Karlstein as she goes about humping her partners to death, draining them of their life energy. in EVBH, the line is uttered by Emily Malone’s father. There is a lot of thanatic energy in Ehlers’ book, dominating the many exhausted men and vampires who, even as they struggle against death, find themselves longing for it it.  In contrast to the alluringly dissipated sexual energy of Franco’s Countess, it is Ehlers’ female characters who bring the Eros to Erotic Vampire Bank Heist:  they embrace life, not just in matters sexual, but in their desire to selflessly help others and to love unconditionally.  

Although Ehlers’ book is a big pulp adventure punctuated with explicit sex scenes, it is this urge to poetically depict thanatic men (and the erotic women who love them) that may give Erotic Vampire Bank Heist, like The Bare-Breasted Countess, a slim chance of outliving the desperate and squalid conditions under which it was created.  

And isn’t such immortality—despite its cost—exactly part of what gives the vampire mythos its power?

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