Kindred: the Embraced (1996) – The 1990s that You May Have Chosen to Forget!

The 1990s was a weird period for television horror. It started with the magnificent kookiness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991), continued the gloriousness of The X Files (1993-2002) and managed to achieve a monumental hat-trick with Buffy, The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). But it also brought us some other stuff, like Kindred: The Embraced (1996)

This last show was so 1990s but also such a mess. If one remembers the other three with a sense of misty-eyed nostalgia, Kindred: The Embraced profoundly reminds one that the good old days only seem so in retrospect, and that nostalgia is when one remembers the good bits and forgets the bad bits. Nostalgia like remembering old romances, in which one has forgotten why one ever split up. But just because one can’t remember why one split up, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t very good reasons.

So what we have is an Aaron Spelling produced television horror series that lacks the camp fun of Satan’s School for Girls and tries to mix the ‘attitude’ from Spelling’s masterwork, Dynasty (1981-1989), with the atmospherics of Twin Peaks, while throwing in a lot of Godfather-style underworld politics … but with no clear rationale. The result is a cocktail but not a tasty and intoxicating one. Instead, its not exactly sickly but is still a rather unappealing concoction. It is not exactly that the flavors clash but rather that something vital is missing, something that would bring them together and make them work in harmony.

Instead, what we get is lots of stylish people giving one another huge amounts of attitude (the Dynasty bits), lots of atmospheric lighting, lots of ominous noises and dirge-like music (the Twin Peaks bits) but nothing whatsoever actually happens. Even the action sequences seem to be strangely languid, so that people bust into flame or jump through windows in slow motion to the sound of melancholy music…

To the extent that there is a plot, it starts with C Thomas Howell as a maverick cop called Frank (warning no cop show thrills on offer here!), who is trying to nail underworld king, Julian Luna (get it? Luna = moon = creature of the night…) Frank is also having an affair with one of Julian’s ex-lovers but, unbeknownst to him, both she and Julian are vampires.

Anyhow, this poor woman falls in love with Frank – don’t ask me why – and their relationship threatens the vampire world so she has to be punished. This vampire underground is full of rules: no vampire must tell a human that vampires really exist; no vampire can harm a human; or take more blood from a human than is strictly necessary for their survival, etc. etc. Are these vampires, vegetarians or party-poopers? But having transgressed these rules, Frank’s lover decides to accept her fate and spontaneously combusts; but only after she makes Julian promise that, if she accepts her punishment, he will protect Frank from the vampire underworld.

Her crime is that, by revealing her true nature to Frank, she has threatened the fragile existence of the vampire underworld, which survives through the ‘masquerade’, i.e, through the deception or conspiracy that keeps their non-human existence a secret from the human world. It is typical of the show that the vampires don’t call this a secret, or a conspiracy, but rather use a pompous term like ‘masquerade’.

But Julian also has other problems to deal with. He is the prince of the vampire underworld and is struggling to maintain a precarious peace between its numerous vampire clans – this is where the Godfather-style politics comes in. In other words, Julian is trying to protect vampires and humans from one another, but Frank doesn’t understand this and hates Julian – Frank believes that Julian is just a run of the mill untouchable gangster but his attitude doesn’t change much when he realizes that Julian is also a vampire.

So basically, Julian has his work cut out protecting Frank, while Frank tries to destroy him, and while his vampires confederates all want to destroy Frank. Nightmare!

And all the while, Julian just keeps trying to make everyone see, especially Frank, that humans and vampires can co-exist. Of course, it would have been better, if the humans and the vampires had waged all out war against one another … well, better for us as viewers and for the survival of the series, which only lasted for eight seemingly interminable episodes.

But it is not simply that there isn’t much in the way of narrative that undermines the show, it is also the absence of anything resembling appealing characters. Frank is simply annoyingly stupid and one can sense Julian’s irritation that he has sworn to protect the fool – you can also sense that he would just love to tear the idiot’s throat out. But that doesn’t really make Julian much more interesting. In my book, vampires need to come in one of two types. They either have to really enjoy what they are doing, or they have to suffer a deep sense of self-hatred at their monstrous existence. It doesn’t much matter which, but they have to love or loathe their condition.

But Julian is neither type. He clearly doesn’t love his condition, and exists to police the joyless rules of the masquerade; but he doesn’t seem to sufficiently hate his existence either. Instead, he seems to accept his lot with the dull resignation of a institutional manager. You can sense his frustration with trying to get his subordinates to see sense and to act responsibly, but he gives off an aura of bored weariness rather than an existential despair or horrified self-hatred.

Of course, Kindred: The Embraced has its pleasures, although I must admit that I can’t think of many at the moment, but it functions much more powerfully as a kind of anti-nostalgia. Watching it is less like remembering the beautiful moments from a doomed love affair, and more like re-living all the frustrations, embarrassments and rows that led to the inevitable break up.

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Moon of the Wolf (1972) – Stars, Location and Atmosphere

Given last week’s discussion of Barbara Rush, plus the revelation that my most visited post is Satan’s School for Girls (and with nearly twice as much interest as its nearest rival), I felt inspired to spend some time on Moon of the Wolf, another made-for-television horror film of the early 1970s.

It starts David Janssen, who was a titan of the made-for-television film and mini-series of the 1970s, until his death in 1980 at the age of 48. He had made his name as Richard Kimble in The Fugitive (in which Rush had made a notable appearance as a guest star), and he would also star in the detective series, Harry O, which I remember fondly and premiered on television the year after Moon of the Wolf. His tired, world-weary persona never really took off in cinema, but it proved irresistible to television.

He therefore starred in a whole series of things, although there are two mini-series that are particularly worthy of note. The first of which was Centennial (1978-1979), an absolute monster of the blockbuster television mini-series, which told the history of Colorado across two centuries and, in the process, had ambitions to being a microcosm of the American story. It even ends with major ecological questions about the future. In this monumental narrative, Janssen took the role of narrator, his gravelly voice acting as television’s ‘Voice of God’ in much the same way that Charlton Heston’s voice has come to operate in cinema.

The same year, he also became God’s voice (in a different way) in The Word (1978), a really interesting mini-series (and kind of television horror story), in which he is hired by publishers to check the veracity of a new set of biblical documents that seem to provide a first hand account of the Christ, and that might finally authenticate the story of Jesus. However, his investigations reveal a far more complex story that involves conspiracy and deceit, although his ‘truth’ is eventually rejected and the ‘fake’ documents are finally accepted as genuine. The effect seems to be no less than the creation of a new society based upon virtually universal faith; but also one that is as much a dystopia as a utopia, given that it is not only based on a lie but also on faith rather than doubt. Here, of course, Janssen’s persona is perfect for the final revelation and the whole story works around that familiar suggestion that it is the struggle with doubt that is ultimately meaningful and valuable, rather than blind or uncritical faith. The mini-series even implies that the ‘faith’ on which the new society is based is actually a kind of mindless conformity and the ends up feeling like something from a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or one of those Star Trek episodes where the crew of the Enterprise encounters a Utopia but decide that paradise must be destroyed in order to stop people wandering around in a blissful daze.

After discussing The Word, I am eager to re-see it and wish I was writing about that, rather than Moon of the Wolf, which really isn’t that great, although it certainly has its pleasures.

Anyhow, the story involves a body that is found badly mauled and the local sheriff (Janssen) starts to investigate. As suspects start to emerge, the nature of the attack looks increasingly strange and anyone in the audience who has any familiarity with this kind of thing soon begins to catch on (if the title hadn’t already alerted them) that a werewolf is on the loose. But who is it? Suspicion is directed at various characters, although the brother and sister of a wealthy, local family seem to be central to events. This couple is played by Bradford Dillman and – you guessed it – Barbara Rush.

Also, Rush and Janssen’s characters clearly have chemistry in the story, and one of the nice thing about 1970s television was that, unlike the cinema of the period, it was happy to provide roles for women like Rush who was in her mid-1940s at the time, roles in which they were not only leading ladies but were also supposed to be sexual beings with a past.

There isn’t a lot else to say about the plot, without giving the game away, but I should probably add that the creature effects are predictably awful (which never put me off a monster movie) and that the local color is excellent. Rather than simply being filmed in LA on studio lots, it uses a lot of Louisiana locations that give the rather slight story a considerable sense of atmosphere. Yes, there is a noticeable absence of explicit gore but that wasn’t what made-for-television horror films were all about. They excelled in atmosphere and suspense, qualities that are central to most of the classics of the type: Duel, The Night Stalker, etc.

And it is this quality that the stars also bring to the film. Janssen was capable of drenching a story with atmosphere without appearing to doing anything – not talking, moving, or anything at all. Similarly, Bradford Dillman is a fantastic character actor who was everywhere in the 1970s (he even ends up in Joe Dante’s wonderful Piranha)  but has never seemed to get the credit that he deserves. He seems to have a permanent aura of self-disgust born of corruption or compromise, an aura that works perfectly in this story. Oh, and Barbara proves fascinating, too – obviously – and she conveys a peculiar mixture strength and vulnerability (or should I say fragility). After my last entry, Kevin Heffernan (author of the wonderful Ghouls, Gimmick, and Gold) rightly observed on facebook that Rush ‘is a *huge* part of why Nick Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE works as beautifully as it does. Her quiet, terrified defiance of steroid-crazed patriarch James Mason is what keeps the film from tipping over into bathos and unintentional comedy’. He is absolutely right, and I love that phrase: ‘quiet, terrified defiance’. Anyhow, it is a similar balance of conflicting elements that makes her perfect for this story, too, so that it remains uncertain, right up until the final revelation, whether she is a potential monster or victim.

So, Hour of the Wolf is certainly no masterpiece but I have to recommend it for its sense of atmospherics, atmospherics that are largely due to its careful use of locations and its casting (in addition to the three main actors mentioned, the film is packed full of other great character actors).

Satan’s School for Girls

Okay, so I just watched Satan’s School for Girls again, and what can I say. Its a knowing camp-fest that is produced by Aaron Spelling, who has done other horror productions: anyone remember Kindred: the Embraced in the mid 1990s? On the one hand, its really silly: the devil is on the loose in a girl’s school – the clue is in the title. On the other, its not quite silly enough – there is is a serious absence of the more obvious pleasures of this kind of nonsense. On yet another hand – okay, we are talking mutants with numerous hands here – its full of rather batty pleasures. Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd appear in pre-Charlie’s Angels roles, and while Cheryl is a major disappointment, Kate is perfect – but then she was always my favorite angel, so maybe I am just biased.

More importantly, it has various other iconic figures in various roles. The lead is the ever wonderful and perennially weird Pamela Franklin, who was wonderful as one of the children in The Innocents (1963), and was weird and creepy in various roles including non-horrors like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and horror-numbers such as The Nanny (with mad, bad Betty Davis), Our Mother’s House, And Soon the Darkness, and Necromancy (with madder, badder Orson Welles). However, its her role in the fantastic The Haunting of Hell House that will always stay with me – she is both creepy and sympathetic – and of course we are back in Richard Matheson territory. I am beginning to worry that this is turning into a Richard Matheson appreciation blog, not that this would be a bad thing.

Along with Franklin, there is also Roy Thinnes as a charismatic teacher who is trying to open up the kids’ minds (it is the early 1970s, when teachers still had notions about such things), but I think I will spare you much more about Thinnes for now, an actor who seems to be turning up in these posts with nearly as much regularity as Matheson. Finally, there is also Lloyd Bochner, or Cecil Colby from Dynasty, an actor with a voice that always reminds me of Orson Welles (see earlier posts) and has a long and distinguished career in horror. To be honest, his CV would make a a truly impressive list, and one would be hard pushed to find an example of a classic American television series that he hadn’t been in – Love Boat, Fantasy Island, you name it. None the less, he would also memorably appear in various examples of horror, such as Bloch’s The Night Walker, Boris Karloff’s Thriller and The Twilight Zone, a role which has become one his most fondly remembered – he even spoofed it in one of the Naked Gun films…

I am not sure that I am actually recommending Satan’s School for Girls. Its not The Night Stalker. Its not even Curse of the Black Widow. And it probably is representative of what Gregory Waller hates about the made-for-television film (although it still doesn’t fit many his actual claims about it). But it is also filled with hokey pleasures – and clearly borrows heavily from the female Gothic (borrowing here being tantamount to travesty), with its female investigator who solves the mystery, and its rather banal excuse for a climax in which the contemporary characters all investigate the mystery while holding oil lamps like something from a nineteenth century melodrama – hey, there’s been a power cut!