Man, my 12 Days of Ed Wood has won ray over schedule (this is only night 10), but I have an excuse: India's Harinam Singh and his 1999 (sometimes listed as 2006 since that's when it was discovered and shared and embraced by the weird film community) anti-opus Shaitani Dracula (English translation: "Satan's Dracula"): Actor, director, writer, presumably editor, Singh is a one man band of cosmic proportions. He knows not how to focus a camera, nor tell a story, nor direct a scene, nor--for a single moment--be anything but wildly hilarious. This is anti-genius of the sort that makes Ed Wood's best seem woefully coherent. Hell, it even make the Turkish Star Wars seem like 2001.
Consisting of mostly interchangeable set of blurry shots of monsters (dudes in masks, girls in plastic fangs and cut-out styrofoam cooler-lid wings) chasing people, the film pulses lightning, and hot girls cooling down in outdoor showers at night (fully clothed); dark cloud insert, lurches into daytime standing around by cars and girls arguing with dopey men. Crazy-lame howls and high-pitched titters, rain and wind effects fill up the soundtrack. Music and songs from old Bollywood classics start and stop in a random crazy quilt of overlapping and jarring noises and "booooo-oooo!" style spooky vocalizing. Add mixed up time frames, interchangeable actors, inscrutable dialogue (none of his films, as far as I know, have ever been dubbed or subtitled into English), stir, rinse and assemble with a rusty splicer and a blindfold. The resulting mess can set you free. If you believe in madness.
I know I'm not alone in my reverence. Diabolique's Keith Allison exclaims: "It is a film so far beyond the pale of anything we can recognize as a movie that one can hardly call it a movie. An experience, perhaps. Enlightenment." Dan Budnik of Bleeding Skull announces: "You can try to blink the crazies away but this film won’t let it go. It’s a child’s vision of a vampire movie that verges on a wet dream of epic proportions." And Teleport City declares Shaitani Dracula to be: "a film so bonkers on every single level that it has become a legendary work of art." Wayne Butane exclaims "It's a perfect storm of filmmaking incompetence." The Wood of Bollywood shall endure!
|Gaze into the eyes of your dark lord|
Singh himself plays the title role a middle-aged Indian man, ever-clad in a dark blue Union cavalryman's hat and coat (no cape, and no reason). With a jet black mustache, double chin, and twinkly eyes bouncing along on presumable cue cards to the left of the camera, age makes a lot of grand announcements--in booming echo--laughing maniacally and saying "Dracula" every other word, as if continually reminding himself and everyone else he's the star. He keeps his head centered in widescreen medium-close-up (ala above) moving slowly from side to side, giving the impression of being vaguely animatronic Sometimes we cut to him wearing his dime store plastic fangs but he looks like he's always trying to spit them out (if you've ever worn them yourself as a kid, you probably get why).Most of the time though, is spent watching masked monsters wrestle with scantily clad young maidens while thunder crashes on the soundtrack, the horror movie archetypal primal scene stripped down to an eternal Halloween wrestling match. Stoop-shouldered men in skeleton sweatshirts and flea-bitten wolf costumes throw biker shorts-clad maidens to the ground for some air groping.
Here's an example: a pair of lewd older male buffoons walk through an emptied park at nighttime and are gobsmacked by the sight of a gorgeous girl taking a backlit shower (clothed). They walk behind her making lascivious gestures but then she suddenly turns around in a wolf man masks (with spiky red hair) and bat wings. They run! Next shot they're leisurely climbing into a van, all relaxed with about five other guys, as if Singh needed a shot of them escaping so just filmed them climbing into the van to go home after an all-night shoot.
That's OK. You either love this film instantly or watch five minutes and turn away. Some of us just want to look in his big Harinam Singh/Dracula eyes, his very plain and unscary house, his stable of pretty girls in tight biker shorts, his mix of "where do I put my hands?" self-consciousness, delight with all he surveys, and nervousness his crew is fucking up, i.e. failing, as usual, to keep him (or anything) in focus.
As yes, focus. It's a problem that occurs all through the film, a problem that even the most incompetent western directors usually master fairly well. In fact, if a shot is suddenly in focus, the question arises of whether it was lifted from another movie, replete with incorrect (stretched or compressed) aspect ratio. But hey! Singh is making a movie, or something, and he's stocked it with babes who have to do what he tells them. Heh Heh. And what he tells them, presumably, is to take lots of outdoor showers, in the park, at night, with their tight biker shorts and halter tops on; and that later they should lie still on tables while he paws at them like the Indian Paul Naschy. As with Naschy, it doesn't track as offensive since it's so naive, so unfiltered. I remember when that Farrah Fawcett Majors swimsuit poster came out. I was ten years old and hat it on my bulletin board opposite my bed. I used to gaze at her longingly the wee hours of the morning, flushed with a strange, delirious desire I could not explain, an all-consuming child's first rushes of lust, the sort that as yet knows not of any attached release or fulfillment, or shame.
Focus may be a big problem, and narrative may or may not exist since I don't know the language, but none of that matters when the soundtrack is so richly insane. Thunder crash inserts bridge each shot; wind howls; inappropriate orchestral cues surge and retreat. Sometimes the sound kicks out altogether or we hear dialogue leaking over from some long cut clip. For songs we hear the same classic Asha Bhosle/R.D. Burman song (from an older movie) played twice. There is no dancing or lip syncing whatsoever during these moments though. The movie keeps going, with scenes of yelling. We get a startlingly in-focus shot of a very attractive and well made-up girl yelling at a boy who doesn't seem to deserve her. The shot seems lifted from another movie. When the music ends there's demented laughing, bowed saws, lurching drums, and high pitched giggling, like a man trying to do an impression of a girl doing an impression of a laughing mouse. There's also the lamest werewolf howl ever heard, with the voice of the actor cracking feebly over the high notes.
As is often the case with Bollywood films, within every few sentences of Hindi spoken, some basic English phrase flits by, like "I think you're right!" or "you understand!?" or "are you possible?"(just as French ears might perk up when we say 'noir' or 'oui' or 'zoot alors!"). Magically, this keeps our English speaking ears alert for more. The result: a sweet structuralist decalcification akin to Godard or Antonioni at their most 'whatever'-est.
Fans of foreign films know that the trick around 'subtitle alienation' is to listen to the language, trying to understand the words spoken, using the subtitles sure, but not just reading them like a book and forgetting to listen). In somrthing like this, especially since there are no subtitles at all, the English phrases are constantly tricking us into auditory hallucinations. Our brains hear English phrases where there are none, assembling words out of the gushing torrent of syllables the way we might see strange messages in the white noise on TV. That they seldom make sense is part of the rapture, delivering fractured haiku and random Mad Libs surrealism galore. "She had a cabbage to you," was one I heard a lot, also "Jazzercize my bag handling," and--my favorite-- "the ladies are not a salter to your Brenda Lou." (2)After long nights of mayhem we cut to the cast of young people hang around the park in, standing side to side in a long row so the widescreen camera can get them all in the shot, a shot probably from some other film since it's actually in focus (or the camera man has night blindness). Then it's night and there they are again, camping out in the middle of a brightly lit public park. Don't ask why the local officials and park patrols allow such things-- that's not your business. Maybe they had a permit. Maybe they didn't. Maybe that's something people in India just get to do, like hippies up in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, only with more (a lot more) make-up. And don't worry, there are only maybe four or two daytime exterior shots in the whole film so don't let the focus throw you kid. Most of the time it's night and there's no time to figure out what's happening in the blur onscreen before some girl in a red-haired wolf mask leaps out of the bushes, or Singh's Australian cavalry officer Dracula comes floating by, laughing maniacally with hands outstretched, camera wisely not showing what's under his floating feet. Though there are plenty of people around, women still have a habit of wandering alone into the darkness. Or sleeping, sometimes with big lights right outside behind their tent, making it seems like they just pulled over to sleep in front of some random backlit green screen during an all-night film shoot. This allows all sorts of weird ghost like things to occur, including a goose, and a foreground looming face with a big beard, a kind homunculus / Tibetan demon / half-gypsy combination lit up in red leering out at the camera. Chilling! Then you realize it looks like a bearded actor/red gel lighting combination recycled from Singh's Shaitani Atma (1998).
My favorite monsters are the girls in white with the bare midriffs (left) who sprout fangs, and badly-cut styrofoam wings and make little flying gestures with their fingertips, arms akimbo, wobbling uncertainly along, trying to keep their balance while standing up on AV carts (my guess) pulled along by people just below camera.
Though many are chased and mauled and pounced on, no one in film seems to actually die, nor bleed, and certainly no one comes back as a vampire, or seems to remember what just happened one minute to the next. At one point, while lustily rolling around on top of a nubile victim, our wolf man just stops, gets up, finds his wolf mask, which slipped off in the fracas, and puts it back on, camera still rolling, the girl patiently waiting for him to resume the scene.
Rather than get up and go to the loo, Shaitani Dracula practically pees on itself with the desire to please, to deliver the kind of movie that can enjoyed in a blurry millionth generation dupe on a cell phone or in a movie theater so crowded with restless infants, chatter, and cigarette smoke that paying attention to anything longer than a single random shot or two is impossible. It's a movie that can be engaged with anywhere along its timeline. Slice off any two minutes of the film and you can grow a whole movie from the cutting. I doubt if there was script as such, just Singh running around giving impromptu directions while pulling feebly at the focus lever. Once enough chasing around the park occurs, enough layered laughing, howling screaming, and making wind effects have floated by, the expansive action constricts down to a long drawn-out, hilarious "fight" between the lead--a dishy lady in tight red vinyl halter top / biker shorts combo--and Dracula. There are lots of terrible fake punches. Her hot legs keeps dragging the camera down to them like they have a gravity no tightening of the tripod can forestall. But then, in the middle of their climactic skirmish, he cuts away to a blurry shot of a guy walking aimlessly around in a skeleton hoodie.
Why? We never learn, as we go right back where we left off in the ogling, cross waving, and the kind fake elbow jabs five year-old boys give each other after watching the 1966 Batman TV show. If that's the kind of thing you and your friends used to do at that age (as I did), you're liable to love it. It's ike sneezing out a chunk of your brain and finding a long forgotten breakfast cereal prize. What else, you wonder, might still be up there?
I've seen this film five times since my first viewing last month; I haven't pledged as much energy to his other films yet, which are viewable on YouTube in even worse shape. I did watch most of his Shaitani Aatma (1998) which seems like a dry run for the 'magic' perfection of Shaitani Dracula. None of them have subtitles on YouTube, but they don't entirely need them. The elements never waiver. A bunch of young people talking somewhere about the monsters, contrasted with monsters stalking and molesting the young people. That they are so enjoyable even without knowing the language proves their mettle. Without subtitles or dubbing it would be hard to stick with the average Bollywood feature, which is usually three hours long and suffers (in western eyes) from a tendency to bog down in soapy intergenerational melodrama, pastorale romance, and interminable and way-too-happy music numbers. Harinam Singh's films clock under two hours and "focus" on what we want most: guys in monster masks chasing pretty people around through misty gardens at night while thunder strikes, wind effects howl, and someone goes "booo-OO--ooo."
All that aside, like the average childhood recollection, folded into the mostly wholesome play violence and Halloween spookiness are some sexually unsettling moments. In one, we cut from some random scene into the middle of what is either a couple fooling around or the a kind of date rape. If you've ever been ready to leave a party and accidentally barged in on a couple getting busy in a bedroom where you thought the coats were kept, or something like, and you said sorry and closed the door and then later ib though: "Wait, was that woman trying to get away from him? Was she even awake, or so drunk she didn't know what was going on? Was their consent there?" You only saw for one second and then turned away and shut the door on embarssed instinct. What the hell do you do with this latent concern, besides nothing and then obsess periodically about it for the next 30 years?
But I wouldn't worry about that here. I doubt anything was even sexual, beyond all the leering and objectification. Anyway, why let it bum you out?
As Singh's voice shouts at the end of the film as the survivors walk out of Drac's house into the morning sun, "Ah-MIN!"
BAZIN + HARINAM = Post-Structuralist Ecstasy
The origin of mise-en-scene as a concept comes from Andre Bazin, the father of French nouvelle vague and auteur theory, who came of age in the movie houses of Paris in the wake of WW2. Hollywood imports--freed from six years of Nazi embargo--were once again flowing onto French screens, but very few had subtitles or French dubbing. These kids were so cuckoo for cinema they sat through them anyway. Being able to enjoy a film without having any idea what anyone was saying was to appreciate it as true art, as a system of images and music and sounds, freed from all the distractions of language. A film might be about a murder and greed run amok after a bank robbery, but Bazin and co. knew it was really about a bunch of male actors sitting around in a shadowy room. Freedom from language made guessing what came next impossible, with the result every film was 'new' the way it would be to a child who understands very little of adult conversation. After subtitles and dubbing came in, Bazin would keep this alienation affect alive by hopping from cinema to cinema, walking in on movies halfway through and leaving as soon as he deduced where it was going, thus to keep the sound and images 'pure' of narrative (and all the unconscious hypnotism such narratives induce).
Artists like Brecht and Godard thought to use this sense of narrative hypnosis against itself, thus to wake us up from the unconscious pleasure/anxiety spectrum of narrative into something like truth, the truth of the real that lurks outside the Platonic cave. The truth can help us wise up to the signs and symbols our brains rely on to keep us asleep. It turns out our brain's willingness to plunge forward into the warm goop of story (the shadows on the cave wall) can be turned against itself, like holding a mirror up to one's own inner Medusa, letting Pegasus escpape from her neck and fly us to freedom.
Brecht and Godard do it intentionally, but when that carrot and stick style film reward/punishment dichotomy is derailed by incompetence (Wood, Singh), it's a heckuva lot more fun. We become wise to the mechanics of our own hypnosis and thus free from the anxiety of our age, in both senses of the word, even while indulging in delirious nostalgia. We're delivered to a place of childhood rapture when even a threadbare thrill contrivance like Bride of the Monster or the YMC fair's rickety spook show ride could thrill our imagination while making us laugh and see through the contrivance at the same time. To be sure, there are monster movies that employ the same cheap latex Halloween masks and ratty bear suits, fog machines and haphazard editing of Singh. But dudes in masks chasing beautiful Indian girls in skin tight lame shorts, or women in masks or fangs and wings chasing middle aged gross men? Never. It's so basic, so primordial, so mythic, it lives in the same happy place we find when 'remembering' our favorite classic horror movies, happier even then our experience watching the films themselves.
The catch with Singh's and Wood's kind of supreme WTF incompetence is is that it cannot be faked or even attempted. It either happens or it doesn't. When normal people try to make an intentionally weird/surreal film it comes off as just hack posturing, like Modesty Blaise (1966), Boom! (1968) or Casino Royale (1967). But when an incompetent weirdo tries to make a 'normal' movie, it comes out like Plan Nine or Shaitani Dracula. David Lynch is the only American filmmaker to really crossover in both directions, but he's still has producers and investors who need profits. Sometimes, like in Mulholland Drive, he can cross over in such a way as he brings even the middle class and bourgeois audience along into the blue box abyss. But someone like Harinam Singh or Ed Wood arrive there in the opposite direction, leaving the bourgeois in the dust, which is always better. They're so good at estranging us from the narrative's normal symbolic order that our whole set of filmic expectations goes out the window. What is left is a kind of giddy lysergic freedom from the bonds of language. It's better than being either safe at home or lost in the unfamiliar. It's finding one in the other and vice versa- the world finally locks into place by falling totally to pieces. Thanks Harinam! You broke it and fixed it at the same time! Ah-Min!
Shaitani Dracula is currently only avail in various quality transfers with large "Gold Movies" or "Eagle" stamps on the edges of the screen and with no subtitles; the best I've found so far is here.
1. HBO, AMC, IFC and their ilk rely wayyy too much on the 'smash cut rut'- my phrase for when two people meet somewhere, seem to barely like each other, and then we smash cut to them in mid pre-orgasmic rutting in some car or bedroom, thus skipping foreplay and everything else, their eyes usually glazed over and distracted. It was eye-popping / disturbing when they started doing it in the 1990s with shows like Rome, Oz and the Sopranos. Now it's so overused it's a wonder kids know what foreplay even is. HBO, you broke our society! No wonder dudes are such a menace these days (for more, see The Rutting Season)
2, - Considering my connection to girls with the nanes Susan Salter (a girl I crushed on in my PA elementary school) to Brenda Wiley (the Central NJ killer who was cousin to a girl I knew in NJ) to Lou- the nickname of an old (NJ) girlfriend - it's like an Tarot I-Ching to areas of my earlier love life my unconscious probably wishes I was more interested in. Yours may certainly be different, but listen and see if you can't hear about the old Salter to your Brenda Lou, too.