Crypt of the Living Dead by Doug Brunell

Book: Crypt of the Living Dead, Sinful Cinema Series #2

Author: Doug Brunell

Type of Book: Non-fiction, film criticism

Why Do You Consider This Book Odd: It shows the charm and marginal merit of a film that I initially felt had neither but could see once I read Brunell’s take on the film.

Availability: Published by Chaotic Words in 2017, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I’ve begun to despair of the horror genre as of late, and it may be because I’ve reached the age to where there is very little that’s new under the sun.  It’s not helped by the fact that so often genre films are endeavors where those with marginal talents do the bare minimum necessary to get a film together, as evidenced by many of the anemic offerings on NetFlix.  For every Babadook or It Follows, there are a dozen miserable titles that one shouldn’t bother to remember because they all tell the same story, poorly acted, with little spark.

But perhaps I’m being an old crank.  Well, actually, I am being an old crank, at least where the horror genre is concerned and I needed to be reminded that sometimes the desire to see only that which is wholly new, unconventional or somehow rarified can cause us to overlook films that might be interesting if only paid attention.

Enter Doug Brunell’s look at little-known films.

I came across Doug’s work after he read my compendium TL;DR and introduced himself on Twitter. I looked up his work and was delighted to see that he was a fellow traveler in the bizarre and fringe and had written analyses of the cinematic corollaries to some of the books I discuss here.  I saw the title Crypt of the Living Dead, and thought it had something to do with zombies.  Nope, this is a vampire film. (Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters links zombies, werewolves and vampires together as monsters conjured by mass fears of overpopulated cities, disease, especially diseases caused by bodily rot, and though that is certainly not relevant to this discussion it was interesting to see all three monsters represented in this film, as it features a vampire who turns into a wolf and the title leads modern audiences raised on George Romero films to think of zombies.)  I decided it would be interesting to watch the film first and then read what Brunell had to say about it.

Though Mr OTC and I agreed that the film might have gone down better had we been watching it with a space janitor and two wise-cracking robots, it wasn’t wholly bad.  In fact, I found myself uttering Yogi Berra-worthy statements as I watched it, like, “This film would be pretty good if it wasn’t so bad.”  Because there were moments in it that were entertaining, and most of those moments were entertaining because they were so weird.

A quick synopsis, and here be spoilers but I don’t think anyone will be watching this film with an eye toward creative storytelling or unexpected plot twists (but I will try to minimize them): An older man, who came to a small, almost inbred European island to study their customs, is crushed under the crypt topper of a woman called Hannah, who died in 1269.  He is crushed because a wild man (a literal wild man who resembles a cave man with an eye patch) and a robed man knock him over, shove him under the crypt, and knock the supports out from under it, crushing him, effectively decapitating him.  The man’s son, Chris, comes to the island and is greeted by the man in robes, Peter, who lives on the island with his sister, Mary.  We don’t know what Peter’s game is but he seems very helpful to Chris, helping him navigate the stand-offish islanders who are slow to welcome newcomers.  Mary is a schoolteacher and the kids are suitably creepy, as are the islanders, especially the fishermen who won’t even speak to Chris.  We find Chris has come to the island to get his dad out from under the crypt – the islanders were just going to leave him there, minus his head, because the tomb was too heavy to lift, evidently.  So Chris, with Peter’s help, organizes the fishermen on the island to try to go underground and lift the tomb and though they are divided on whether or not they should be messing around with Hannah’s tomb because, as you probably know, she was interred as a vampire and to mess with the tomb risks letting her out, they ultimately try to help. Mary and Chris “bond” and Peter seems excited at the prospect that his sister may leave the island with Chris. But nothing goes easily because Hannah has gotten out, she preys on the islanders and everything ends rather poorly for many of the islanders and, of course Peter, who was in thrall to the undead Hannah.  And it all seems okay at the end, once Hannah has been dealt with in a rather pyrotechnic manner, but alas, peace will be short-lived because evil now infests this little island.

As I watched the film, the deficits, which were funny rather than infuriating, were what I noticed first.  Here are the best of the “WTF” moments:

–When Chris’s dad was exploring the catacomb area, he walks under a sacrificed goat that has been strung up high and is bleeding out.  He feels the blood drip on his face and looks up and stands there staring at the bleeding goat as it spills blood all over his face.  When he finally starts walking again, he doesn’t bother to wipe the blood off, but instead wanders the catacombs with goat’s blood all over his face and head.

–Chris is such a dead ringer for notable porn actor John Holmes that it was distracting.

–Inexplicably, the only person who saw Hannah in her wolf form was, I am not kidding, completely blind.

–Mary, who taught in a one-room school house, forced one kid to stand in the corner ALL DAY because she found him playing in the cemetery because that is a totally reasonable thing for a grade school teacher to do.  The entire classroom is filled with children who would need a bath and a complete set of chromosomes to qualify as extras in Children of the Corn.

–Hannah, the person for whom the film is named and who ostensibly should have at least been a peripheral character, never says one word in the film.  Instead she writhes about in her tomb, wanders about in a filmy white dress, and generally looks kind of pretty but is basically just a piece of animated scenery.

–Chris and Mary hook up and Peter, who I may remind you is Mary’s brother, watches from outside.  Okay, sort of gross, right.  Then the next day when he sees them he is super pleased and overly enthusiastic about Chris nailing his sister and immediately demands that Mary leave the island with Chris because nothing says emotional security and trust like a stranger having sex with your sister within days of meeting her even though he’s supposed to be trying to haul his dad’s carcass out from a vampire’s tomb.

There are other moments that left me wondering what on earth was at play but mostly I focused on the silly plot points because the movie seemed very simple and the details of the film seemed secondary to the gentle mockery that made up most of my reaction.  But then I followed it up by reading Brunell’s analysis of the film and it changed the film for me.  Of course, the film isn’t suddenly rendered amazing after seeing it through Brunell’s filter – and Brunell himself points out the movie’s many flaws – but the efforts the filmmakers put into the film, as well as details that went completely over my head, combined with the themes that Brunell saw in the movie, certainly rescued it from the mental file where I had placed it alongside Manos: The Hands of Fate.

With an attention to detail, a deep knowledge of the genre and an obvious love of the subject, Brunell shows us the different ways this movie can be approached and how there are meanings involved that someone who gets distracted by a lead who looks like a notorious porn star will miss. For example, Chris arrives on the island on a boat named Bular. The name is a Turkish word that means find or discover.  Chris and his murdered father represented academia, a force of learning, but this is ultimately subverted because Chris comes to the island adamant that there is no such thing as the supernatural or the occult.  He dismisses the legends of vampires found on the island and is insistent that his father’s body be recovered, sneering at the islanders’ fears of the long entombed Hannah.  That will change, as Chris begins to understand there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than he has dreamed of in his philosophy.

Brunell also deftly picks up on the innate struggle in the film.  The struggle ostensibly is between a vampire and those who don’t want to die at the hands of a vampire.  But more specifically, this movie shows the struggle between the old world and the new, between colonizers and the colonized.  Hannah came to the island in the 13th century as a part of the Crusades.  Her beloved intended to marry her in the Holy Lands once they were recovered in religious war but their ships were swept off course and Hannah herself eventually fell victim to vampires on the island.  Unable to kill her, her beloved had her entombed alive (which brings to mind Poe in The Fall of the House of Usher: “We have put her living in the tomb.”) and she has remained there, inert, for centuries.

The people of the island lived with the entombed vampire for 700 years before Chris’ visit.  They always feared what would happen if she were released, but they never feared she would be set free because they passed down her story from generation to generation, and while each generation was more and more dismissive (as they always are), they respected the legend because they knew there was a grain of truth in it somewhere.

[…]

The fishermen know that the outsider, despite good intentions and deeds, has upset the balance of the islands. In the end they may be free of Hannah, but they are unaware of the full extent of her influence.  They do not know what is left behind, and that answer… is symbolic of the death of the island, which is to be replaced by a permanent state of undead.

In the final scenes, which are a series of freeze frames, we see that those kids in the schoolhouse weren’t just the island equivalent of the banjo-playing kid in Deliverance, uneasy scene setters but ultimately unimportant to the plot.  They are in this film for a very specific reason – children are of course a symbol of the future, and Chris and Peter, both immigrants to that island, have infected the children. The island is doomed because their literal future is tainted.  And it’s not just Chris’ fault, because his old man, an outsider, was poking around in the tombs, and Peter, also an outsider, was a debauched failed writer who was trying to raise Hannah himself.  Chris just became his unwitting pawn, or at least he was at first.  (That’s a whole other element of discussion in this film.  Why did the director decide to show the audience very early on that Peter was involved in murdering Chris’ father?  Was it bad film making or was there a greater plot device behind it?  An interesting question and one Brunell explains very easily and with that explanation one of my biggest problems with the film became a pro rather than a con.)

In addition to showing the details and symbolism people like me would have missed without this book to guide us, Brunell also gives the reader information about the directors, producers, actors and actresses.  For example, the woman who played Hannah was considered a great actress from an acting tradition called “The Barcelona School.”  She really was dreadfully underused in this film as the silent cypher vampire wolf-woman.  Best discussion in this vein, hands down, is the chapter on the man who played Chris.  This bizarro version of John Holmes has one of the more entertaining life arcs of an actor, period, but most interesting out of that arc is his connection to a possibly murdered actress and her possible role in the JFK assassination.

This is a short book, about 100 pages, so you can get your copy of the film and immediately follow it with this book and your weekend is pretty much taken care of.  I wish I had discussed this sooner in case any of you guys needed a wholly new vampire movie to watch on Halloween night, but maybe I’ve helped you plan your Halloween night in 2019.  Brunell comes to the conclusion that this book was not the finest hour for anyone involved, actually using the word “regrettable.”  But at the same time, even a regrettable film has decades of movie history and influences behind it, and Brunell’s work really did change how I looked at this overlooked vampire film.  It didn’t utterly redeem the film, don’t get me wrong.  It’s flawed.  Some scenes made me laugh rather than cringe or feel fright or unease.  But there was a spirit, a sort of soul in this film that I would have missed had Brunell not encouraged a closer look.

There are two other books in Brunell’s Sinful Cinema series that I intend to read.  It was really nice finding his work on forgotten films because ultimately he does what I hope I do with some of the more obscure or weird books on this site, but really he reminds me a lot of Chris Mikul, an author and curator of odd, strange and obscure books I have discussed often on this site.  I don’t think I will watch Crypt of the Living Dead again any time soon, but Brunell’s guide to the movie has shown me a more critical approach even to films considered “bad” that I can hopefully apply to more “bad” movies in the future.  Vampires, a wolf, a one-eyed wildman, a blind dude who sees all, hostile islanders, smug academics, a Hammer-esque actress with widely-spaced eyes, creepy children, and unintentionally hilarious deaths and mortal struggles.  There are far worse ways to spend an evening than to watch this movie and then read Brunell’s take on it. Highly recommended.

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