Vampire for the Massacre (for Mark Johnston)

Klaus Kinski in Crawlspace (1986).

It was August of ’01. My closest friend, whom I regard as my film teacher, and I were waiting to be seated upstairs at the original Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin for QT5, where he struck up a conversation with then-regular patron and later programmer Lars Nilsen. It didn’t take more than a minute to realize that Lars was the most knowledgeable person in line with us. So, before the conversation ended, I asked him if there were any rare video outlets he’d recommend checking out. And shortly upon arriving back in Miami, I received a mail-order catalog from (the now defunct) Shocking Videos. As I browsed through the categories, I found myself either smiling or laughing aloud while reading owner Mark Johnston’s title descriptions and summaries. It was a hundred-page booklet packed with entertaining entries, some even good enough to read twice. And it remains one of my favorite reference guides to obscure cinema that still tickles my imagination.

While Shocking Videos hadn’t been the only name Lars had provided us with, Mark Johnston’s collection of hard-to-find titles was the most extensive and the best advertised. He had movies from all over the world, ranging from “trash” and exploitation to some truly nasty-sounding smut. And a few of the really good ones have only recently begun seeing the light of day, thanks to an expansion of boutique labels and studio vault on-demand titles. Although, with a larger degree of exposure given to the ones licensed by the bigger companies, a lot of the sometimes better or equally valuable films fail to gain awareness (you may wish to visit the Criterion Dungeon to browse through several online catalogs). But besides Shocking Videos’ enormous library, it had something else going for it that I’ve yet to find the likes of, even amongst the most popular and resourceful film and DVD websites (such as Gary Tooze’s DVD Beaver). Shocking Videos had Mark. In fact, Shocking Videos was Mark. And Mark was well known and held in high esteem amongst collectors for both his selection and fine prints, and rightfully so. But for me, in addition to these things, his knowledge of movies combined with his unapologetic sense of humor and the way he sold them to you, set him apart from everyone else. Even his email newsletters and special offers would crack me up.

In 2005, upon having successfully cranked out a screen treatment based upon a few daydreams I had had with two supporting characters from an old project, I thought about doing a few short exercises to jolt my imagination, and shake it clear of that one story I had been chasing for years. I wanted to just do something fun. So having used a formula where I envisioned myself writing for a particular actor and director (Alain Delon and Luis Buñuel) to help me visualize an appealing scenario in a timely manner, I decided to try it three more times. And I turned to Mark’s catalog for inspiration.

Shocking Videos’ website.

The first two that came to mind pretty much wrote themselves, when I thought about the circumstances of how I came to discover Shocking Videos. I had flown to Texas hearing about Italian crime director Fernando Di Leo by my friend, who had grown up watching his movies, and was being assured that he’d show me some of his favorites when we got back. Unbeknownst to us before flying out there, Quentin Tarantino wound up playing three Fernando Di Leo movies at his ten-day festival: The Italian Connection (1972), Slaughter Hotel (1971), and Loaded Guns (1975). And while the first title we saw was far and away the best of them, the second one, which featured Klaus Kinski, is partly to thank for getting the little mouse to start spinning round in my head, as I remembered listening to Di Leo express his disappointment with the film (his first giallo thriller) on Media Blasters’ DVD shortly after its initial release, in 2004. It was his dissatisfaction that led me to imagine what I would have enjoyed seeing him do on a second try with the genre.

So, I borrowed the two earliest sensationalist titles from my youth (Bruce Lee Superdragon (1975) and Summertime Killer (1973), imagined him combining his mastery of the gangster picture with the murder-mystery subgenre, and from this arose what was to become the first incarnation of The Superkiller (details on my first illustrated screenplay should be surfacing soon).

My second miniature was inspired by the title of Fernando Di Leo’s 1980 thriller: Vacation for a Massacre. And once I placed Klaus Kinski as my model for the leading character in Vampire for the Massacre, one director immediately sprung to mind. And it was the combination of the two of them working together—how they would have treated one another is anyone’s guess—that lead to what I believe is the one that captured the spirit of a Shocking Videos review better than its predecessor and the third that followed.

Here’s to you, Mark.

Titles marked “(C)” in Shocking Videos’ catalog indicated the option of paying a little extra for full color box art.

I recall being in a Hialeah movie theater as a kid, when I saw the trailer for Knights of the City (1986). And while it was not the first time I had seen dramatically-lit, steam-billowing city streets in a movie, it created a lasting impression. (Just recently did I find out its title, having only remembered the ambiance and a few of the images.) So when I began to study films, in my early-twenties, I sought out titles with similar moods and tones. And this led me inevitably to the Italian genre filmmakers of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

While I eventually developed an appreciation for The Beyond (1981), which was my first exposure to director Lucio Fulci’s filmography, Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), Zombie (1979), and New York Ripper (1982) immediately became and remain some of my favorites of the genre (I also love Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980). Fulci (and Dardano Sacchetti) knew a thing or two about creating a nightmarish atmosphere, especially when it involved buckets of blood which a story with a title like Vampire for the Massacre would benefit from containing. And while Fulci’s later and gorier pictures involved more and more dream logic, I don’t think this idea would be such a bad thing to inject into Vampire’s presentation if thought out thoroughly enough.

But I’ve decided not to develop this story any further. Instead I thought it would be fun to offer the idea to anyone who writes, paints, or makes films in exchange for the simple pleasure of seeing it. And I plan to offer more of these scenarios in the immediate future—I’ve already got three in mind. I’m going to be tied up for at least the next three years with three other projects, presently on my itinerary, as well as a fourth project and screenplay, which is based upon my third Shocking Videos-inspired miniature (it’s a little something for the director of Shock Corridor (1963).

I believe that the horror genre still has great potential for conveying ideas and stimulating socially-relevant conversations, which doesn’t necessarily call for preachy or unexciting storytelling. Wicked or evil deeds sometimes assist in measuring the value of what is good, due to what can be lost, which may otherwise be taken for granted. And like the best that art has to offer, a good story, regardless of genre, also has the capacity to provoke the imagination towards the taking of actions which may never have been considered.

As technically faulty or as vulgar and silly as many of these genre pictures can be, I’ve always been fascinated by the attempts to do something extraordinary. You’d be surprised how many times someone had a great idea, yet didn’t fully realize it, only to then grow into something of value much later in someone’s else hands.

From left to right. Brigitte Lahaie (in Les Petites Écolières), Alida Valli (in Suspiria), and Pier Luigi Conti, a.k.a. Al Cliver (in Devil Hunter).

Below are a few elements, for mood and atmosphere, which I hope can stimulate all interested parties.

  • Character fashion designs. Because of its early-1980s setting, you may find revisiting or discovering the works of artist Patrick Nagel to be useful.
  • Take a look at the colors, shadows, and makeup use in the music video to Don’t You Want Me by The Human League.
  • Obsession by Animotion was the song I felt the strongest connection with when I was contemplating fleshing the story out, for myself. (I’ve always associated it with being at the county fair at nighttime while moving backwards on the Polar Express.)
  • Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Wicked City (1987) continues to completely satisfy me as a viewer, for its combination of much what I’ve discussed here. Talk about entertaining, amusing, disturbing, nightmarish, and gorgeous to look at.
  • Chase by Giorgio Moroder and Pobre Diablo (Poor Devil) by Emmanuel were other songs I was listening to for ideas in shifts in mood.

Find and go with what works best for you. And take the idea wherever you would like it to go. But above all else, have fun with it. Good luck, and don’t forget to share.

Illustration by Enio Acosta.

Klaus Kinski’s Paganini and Mya’s DVD

It is highly unlikely that any cinephile or demanding moviegoer would not eventually come across the works of director Werner Herzog, especially his five collaborations with actor Klaus Kinski. My first encounter with Kinski was in my early teens when I spotted Vestron Video’s VHS release of Jess Franco’s Jack the Ripper (1976) at my local rental shop; and I would argue that once you see him, you never forget him. His magnetism, intensity (when the character permits), and sharp features are simply that impressive, even when the film is not. The next time I saw him in a leading role (in the late ’90s) I knew who he was, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) remains the Herzog/Kinski I revisit most (albeit, I often get a craving to watch scenes from Cobra Verde (1987).

Upon nearly wearing out the images found in the Herzog and Kinski titles, due to repeated viewings, my film teacher and old friend turned me onto several other lesser-known Kinski performances (at least, in the U.S.). Amongst those, the two which continue to stand out the most to my liking have both been recently made accessible to American audiences; these are Andrzej Zulawski’s L’important C’est D’aimer (The Important Thing is to Love) (1975) and Klaus Kinski’s directorial debut Paganini (1989), a.k.a. Kinski Paganini. While it is tragic that the latter turned out to be his last film, Kinski bowed out in a manner befitting his self-portrait to the public: unchained in his performance and obsessions, and personally edited by the man himself in a print provided by Kinski’s estate, which accompanies the producers’ truncated theatrical version on Mya Communication’s two-disc DVD set.

Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) was a tall, dark and sickly Italian composer and showman that may have been the greatest violinist who ever lived. Other musicians and artists, along with the public, would swarm with great interest to his concerts and try to figure out his tricks; one of which was to break a string, or sometimes three, in the middle of the composition and continue making incredible music. His techniques would invoke many superstitious listeners to believe that the Devil had granted him such skills, and knowing such nonsense would draw more curiosity and audiences, he did nothing to dispel their notions. Consequently, this, along with his socially unaccepted lifestyle of womanizing and gambling, would later delay permission by the Roman Catholic Church to grant him a proper burial for up to four years after his death.

While Klaus Kinski’s sensationalized and embellished autobiography would make it seem that he had much in common with his subject matter’s adult life, and which lead him to write in a lot of himself into the part, the book remains an unreliable source for fact-finding; and a definitive biography in the English language is long overdue (even if it’s a translation of one of the currently available in the German language). Nevertheless, when Kinski failed to convince Werner Herzog to direct the biopic for him, he decided to do it himself. And being familiar with Herzog’s stylized direction, I, for one, am glad that Kinski had the experience of standing behind the camera and realizing his own vision; as both versions of the film unquestionably contain sights, sounds, and an energy that could only have been conceived by its creator.

Kinski as Paganini (voice-over): I am neither young nor handsome. I’m sick and ugly. But when women hear the voice of my violin, they do not hesitate to betray their husbands with me.

Kinski’s writing and directorial credits on both the theatrical version (left) and his “versione originale” (right). Note the absence of an editor’s credit on the theatrical cut.

The images found on both versions of Paganini—although, much more so in Kinski’s cut—are discharged  in a stream-of-consciousness style, consisting of the violinist’s music, memories, desires, fears, and sexual escapades braided with multi-narrative moments and voice-overs belonging to both admirers and condemners. It moves refreshingly unlike the popular standard biographical film; or non-biographical film, for that matter. However there are discrepancies between the two available cuts, now provided by Mya, and each has its own advantage.

Kinski’s preferred cut, which he himself described as “versione originale“, consists of fourteen additional minutes, which includes condemnation and (often justified) allegations by religious leaders, gratuitous and excessive episodes (some bordering pornography), and an eight and a half-minute opening, principally consisting of a priest (Bernard Blier as Pater Caffarelli) sent to visit Paganini to convince him to repent for his sinful life while on his sickbed; it’s a scene grossly condensed and misappropriately placed later on (just over one hour) into the story told in the theatrical version.

Following this scene is where the diffused and sometimes clunky theatrical cut abruptly begins; namely, in an opera house, during one of Paganini’s performances. The venue is packed with adoring fans, especially young women. And here we meet and are granted access to the thoughts of one of his female admirers, who travels alone to attend his concerts. Although she refers to him physically in unflattering terms, he highly arouses her—along with most of the other ladies in his audience—because of what he makes; and she remains lusting for him, along the journey back home.

Like Kinski’s autobiography, his self-edited version is more raw, vulgar, and exploitative, as well as more meditative; there are moments that give the impression of riding a near death experience. Regardless of whether it suits its audience tastes, Kinski’s cut of Paganini is filled to the brim with passion. Having said that, what the producers’ tamer theatrical version offers, which Kinski’s, in its present state, sadly cannot, is a higher quality in sound and picture.

Actress Dalila Di Lazzaro as Paganini admirer Helene von Feuerbach. Besides the drastic difference in clarity and brightness on the theatrical print (left), notice the cropping on both the top and right-hand side of the director’s cut (right).

And with Director of Photography Pier Luigi Santi’s beautiful use of natural lighting, the interior scenes suffer the most in Kinski’s original.

Here is a further example of what is lost when viewing some of the interior sequences on the director’s cut (right).

Despite his love for his wife, Antonia Bianchi (performed by his real-life spouse, Deborah Caprioglio) and his loving and affectionate relationship with his son, Achille (played by Kinski’s only son, Nikolai Kinski), there is no getting around the discomforting theme of Paganini’s obsession with young, sometimes adolescent women. And whatever Kinski doesn’t show or have Paganini act upon, he clearly insinuates.

While none of the actresses which Kinski (as Paganini) lays with are really minors, their characters range from thirteen and up. One of them is based upon Paganini’s sixteen-year-old mistress, Charlotte Watson; in the film, she is a not-very-convincing thirteen-year-old named Carol (performed by Beba Balteano). Another historical figure is Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Elisa Bonaparte (Eva Grimaldi).

In the director’s cut, some of the sexual content becomes so excessively graphic that the scenes, which are interwoven with religious heads speaking ill of him, become (perhaps) intentionally comical.

Here, Paganini seduces the young Angiolina Cavanna (actress Tosca D’Aquino, left) and toys with the viewer, as to her playmates’ interests in him. These stills are taken from the theatrical print.

But the film is not limited to Paganini’s (nor Kinski’s) vices nor weaknesses, which contribute more laughs to the film than mere titillation. The bond between father and son is strong, as it was in real life. As portrayed by both Klaus and Nikolai, Achille was the centre of Niccolò’s world. And Paganini came to be more dependent upon his son, as he became more physically weak (he suffered from various illness throughout his life).

Other documented moments showcasing Paganini’s goodwill and humanity include his finding a poor, young boy playing a violin on the streets of Vienna. Touched by the sad-looking youngster, he quietly takes his violin and plays it, which immediately draws a crowd. Afterward, Paganini collects alms with his hat and gives it to the boy, then wishes them all a good evening. The real Paganini would often give benefit concerts for the poor, and was very generous with aspiring musicians and to those who wished to hear him. In Kinski’s Paganini, information about his own financial worries (and bad diet) are relayed partially through the voice-overs, which streams along with the music (provided by the great Salvatore Accardo).

From the theatrical print: Paganini strolls through Venice (left), where he is spotted by his wife Antonia Bianchi (Deborah Caprioglio as Debora Kinski, right).

Despite the director’s intended cut’s faults—some of the poor dubbing distracts while at other times it appears to blend in with the music and passing voices—its redeemable features include a cinematic biographical journey unlike any other, due to a visually arresting Klaus Kinski, operating in front of, as well as behind the camera.

Although I’m glad to have replaced my VHS copy of the film, I can’t help but feel disappointed with Mya’s release. One can’t fault them for the deteriorated copy of Kinski’s cut. But the lack of subtitles, especially on over fifty minutes worth of priceless behind-the-scenes footage, as well as on the brief Cannes Press Conference, shows a lack of consideration to its customers. Therefore, it is difficult to recommend purchasing this edition anywhere near its present retail price. However, the film itself definitely has its rewards for the adventurous moviegoer.

Now, what I’d really like to see from Kinski’s filmography is a good, subtitled copy of Frank Cassenti’s La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) (1978), along with Augusto Caminito’s Il Grandi Cacciatori (1988), a.k.a. White Hunter.

Achille (Nikolai Kinski, left) watches his father give his final performance (right).

DVD Specifications (Disc 1):

Theatrical Version Runtime: 1:23:53 / Audio: English (stereo), French (stereo), Italian (stereo) / Subtitles: None / Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 (4:3) / Chapters: 12

Disc 1 Extra Features

  • Backstage
    Runtime: 50:45 / Audio: Italian, French, German, English / Subtitles: None
  • Cannes Press Conference
    Runtime: 5:04  / Audio: French / Subtitles: None

“What? No subtitles? Shhh…”

Behind the scenes, you can hear how loud that old Arriflex camera can get.

“My hubby’s so bad,” I can only imagine her saying.

The “vampire with the violin” changes his threads to take the wife out for a bite.

DVD Specifications (Disc 2):

Director’s Cut Runtime: 1:38:13 / Audio: English (stereo) / Subtitles: None / Aspect Ratio (listed as): 1.33:1 (4:3) / Chapters: 12

Disc 2 Extra Features

  • Deleted and Extended Scenes
    Runtime: 50:45 / Audio: Music only / Chapters: 7
  • Photo Gallery
    Runtime: 8:29
  • Original Trailer
    Runtime: 2:01 / Audio: English

Additional Links:

Biographical References: