Tales of Despair: Cup of My Blood

In a dark, cold apartment, two young men stare at the small box in front of them. One, at least, is clearly very afraid. The box must never be opened, one says. We must, the other replies. And so they do.

Moments later, a man and a woman burst in. One man is found in a closet – burned to ash. The other, cowering in the bath. The woman takes the box, and in cold blood kills him.

Jack Fender used to be a renowned photographer, famous for his stark black and white style, and the subtle eroticism of his work. Used to. Three years ago, his wife – his soulmate and his muse – committed suicide. Now he shoots soft porn. Locked off and dead to the world, Jack wanders around in a haze, filled with the dark visions of his wife’s final moments. Then one day, nearly run down in the street, he witnesses the fatal car crash of the woman who took the box. With her dying breath, she bids him to take it, and never to look upon it. And he does.

Jack locks the box away; turns back to his empty life. Continues to pile the cash from his porn shoots on a shelf, never spending a dime. His previous life made sure he doesn’t need to. He puts the box out of his mind – until dark and disturbing visions begin to appear before him. Those around him – the few he interacts with, that pretend to care about him – are certain he’s going insane.

And then – emptying his mind late one night at the pool – he meets Iona. And she listens to him. She speaks to him. And finally, she breaks through to him. They become close, and they begin to love…and after so long, his muse returns. Slowly, his creativity returns, and he begins to feel that he might finally be able to leave the demons behind him.

Janina Gavankar as Iona.

Little does he know that the demons are, in fact, yet to come, lying in wait. As the darkness closes in around him, he begins to realize that Iona may not be all she seems – and the powers of evil are intent on the contents of the box. As everything he knows comes crashing down, he discovers the box holds an ancient and unimaginably powerful relic: the holy grail. And the terrible visions that continue to fill his mind hold an even darker secret from his past.

Cup of My Blood is not a great movie. Mediocrely acted, poorly color-graded and uncomfortably scripted, it is a low-budget B-movie in every possible sense of the word. Yet the editing is strong, and it manages nonetheless to be both visually striking and stylistically unsettling. It is graphic, violent and disturbing, mysterious and frightening, and ultimately charts an artist’s descent into madness in the face of unspeakable horror. Had it had a bigger budget and better actors, it could have been a significant film. As it stands, it’s a visceral depiction of sex and death, haunted by despair.

Some of you may find this film disturbing or upsetting; some of you may simply laugh at it. Either way, approach it with caution: it isn’t as simple as it appears.

Thought of the Week: Oh, To Be a Dragon

I kind of have a thing for dragons.

You know what I mean. For as long as I can remember, these fantastic creatures have mesmerized me, awed me, and pulled me in with their frightful allure. There is a thrill in imagining the pounding of great wings overhead, of the shadow of that colossal beast as it passes over your head, of the dangerous intent in its eye as it bores its gaze into you.

Sculpture of a Chinese dragon

The history of dragons is long, and convoluted. Wikipedia has an excellent entry on them, but in a basic summary, dragons appear to have arisen in myth and folklore out of the common and widespread fear of lizards in general, and snakes in particular. Eastern and western dragons are substantially different, not only in their appearance, but in their demeanor, mythology and meaning as well. Snakelike in form, Chinese dragons are wise, long-lived, powerful and majestic. They are intelligent beyond men, and some legends hold that dragons first taught men to speak. Western dragons, with their legs and wings, are typically more brutal, representing a force of maliciousness and destruction, raining fire and poison from their throats.

I marvel at all of these, but it is admittedly the more western dragons that hold my attention (no doubt due to my upbringing). It’s likely that this was borne from my fascination as a child with dinosaurs (isn’t every young boy?); though I knew there were no longer dinosaurs, the idea that there could be, somewhere in the world, some living vestige of those incredible creatures fueled my imagination. I remember having a near obsession at one point over the Loch Ness Monster; I remember an odd movie with Ted Danson, of all people, as a scientist trying to prove the existence of the fabled creature. I loved that movie.

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher – Bruce Coville (1991)

Dinotopia, which I have already written about, bore the marvel of living dinosaurs to me, and the Skybax riders, soaring majestically on the backs of great, winged beasts, made me intensely jealous that I didn’t live on a remote, unknown island filled with saurians.

There have been numerous books and films over the years that have sustained my love of the creatures; I remember a lovely book from my childhood called Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. In it, the titular character comes across a mysterious object in a mysterious shop – a shop that disappears almost as soon as he steps out of it, carrying with him what he will soon discover to be a real, living dragon egg. He tends to the egg, hatches it, and begins to rear the wonderful creature as a pet. Soon, though, he discovered that the dragon – and he – have a much greater destiny, with the fate of the entire race of dragons in their hands.

Draco, from DragonHeart

Another favorite is DragonHeart, with Dennis Quaid and Sean Connery as Draco (yes – it’s a terribly imaginative name). A delightfully witty and dramatic adventure, it tells the tale of a prince, wounded in battle, who is healed by the generosity of a dragon – the creature passes to him half of his heart, so that he might live. Yet as he grows, the boy becomes ever more bitter, and his teacher – his mentor since childhood – finds himself banished from the kingdom for disagreeing with him. A dragon slayer by nature, he eventually comes across Draco (voiced so wonderfully by Sean Connery), and the two form an uneasy partnership, determined to end the prince’s tyranny once and for all.

Rendition of a Nazgûl as they appear in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films.

There are many others – Reign of Fire, Mulan, Harry Potter, The Hobbit (and The Lord of the Rings, if you count the Nazgûl),Beowulf, and even Shrek all have dragons or dragon-like characters; some benevolent, some evil, and some simply depicted as wild creatures, bent on destruction. However, the most recent addition to the wonderful canon of dragon tales is a movie Little Satis and I watched only recently: How to Train Your Dragon. I will admit, I was worried about this movie; I have no great affection for DreamWorks, as I generally find their animation substandard compared to Pixar’s, and their stories far less compelling than Disney’s. I am glad to say this time, however, I was happily mistaken.

How to Train Your Dragon is a surprisingly heartfelt and touching tale of a young viking who, though desperate to participate in the great dragon hunts of his village, is perpetually shunned for his mild demeanor and physical weakness. Desperate to gain their approval, he in secret designs a complex dragon-killing machine – and manages to bring down a Night Fury, one of the most feared dragons in the land. When he goes to find the creature, however, he discovers not a terrifying, vicious beast, but a frightened and badly wounded animal, just as hurt and alone as he is.

Toothless, from How to Train Your Dragon

In its fall, the dragon’s tail suffers an irreparable injury, leaving it unable to fly. Overcome with guilt, the boy begins the process of constructing a prosthetic tail wing – and in doing so, learns there is far more to the race of dragons than anyone had previously thought. Through the dragon’s healing, their bond strengthens, and the two will eventually lead the fight in an epic battle whose outcome will determine the fate of the vikings – and the dragons themselves.

For those of you who have been following The Redemption of Erâth, you’ll have certainly noticed that dragons have an important role to play in this world as well. Sadly, I have yet to come across a live dragon, so this is the closest I can get to seeing, touching, and breathing in the scent of one of these beautiful beasts.

What I wouldn’t give to ride on the back of one of these great winged furies.

Tales of Despair: Eternal Blood

The Vampire – Philip Burne-Jones

I was one of the (probably many) goth kids who grew up obsessed with all things dark; lord amongst the demons and monsters were, naturally, the vampires. What a beautiful romance these creatures held; to live eternally, at the price of the blood of your fellow men and women. The visceral attraction of blood, warm and flowing, the bitter metallic taste, the swoon of the letting – these were the things that captured my mind.

With this came the gloriously evil tales – not only the fantasies of Nosferatu and Dracula, but the terrifying histories of Vlad the Impaler, and the Countess Báthory. Drinking, bathing, delighting in blood – all was dark, brooding, and beautiful. A natural part of this was the romanticism of the vampire, and I will hold my hand up and say that I watched many vampire movies – notably Francis Ford Coppola‘s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, long before reading of the literature.

Gary Oldman as Dracula (1992)

Francis paints a picture of a medieval man, tortured by war and death, renouncing god for eternal life upon the suicide of his one, only, true love – that he will await her forever, fed on the blood of men. And wait he does, until by happenstance, he sees her likeness in Mina, the fiancée of Jonathan Harker, a minor solicitor visiting his Transylvanian castle. Determined to fulfill his prophecy, he abandons Jonathan to his fate amongst the vampires of his castle, traveling to England in a desperate attempt to be with her. He meets with her, charms her, and seduces her – only to be torn apart again as she leaves him to be wed to Jonathan (resulting in one of the most memorable performances by Gary Oldman, weeping in agony over his loss of her).

Yet his work is done; she remembers him, and becomes infatuated, and begs him to transform her as well. And then, as she begins to change, Dracula retreats once more to his home. Now bound to him, Mina can think of nothing else, and Jonathan, now accompanied by the delightful Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, realize they must pursue and destroy the count if they are to save her. In the bitterest of endings, the wounded Dracula begs his long-lost love to give him peace, and – having lived to see he beloved one last time – he is put to death by her own hand.

First edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Little did I know how little – and how much – this romanticized tale had in common with Bram Stoker‘s brilliant and seminal novel from 1897. While the characters remain the same, their intentions, motivations and desires could not be more different. Strikingly told from the perspective of journal entries and newspaper clippings, the loose plot is similar – Jonathan Harker, the newly-appointed solicitor, traveling to Transylvania to aid the Count Dracula in finalizing his purchase of land in London, and to teach him the ways of the English. Gradually ensnaring Jonathan in his castle with the three vampiric sisters, Dracula comes to London – for the pure desire to live amongst the great population, and to feed at his leisure.

Dracula does turn Mina, but not out of any romantic desire – it is a punishment, revenge against the men who would destroy him. He uses her, tracks his foes through her visions. In doing so, however, he betrays his own intentions, and is eventually hunted down and destroyed.

By all accounts, Bram’s original text is heart-stopping and gripping; the format of its writing ensures the survival of no character, for there is no narrator. We are left until the very end to know, even, whether the party of vampire hunters have triumphed over the bloodthirsty Count. In some ways, Francis’ version is one filled with emotional torment, anguish and despair – to pine for a lost love for four hundred years, only to be denied a life with her in the final moments is a heartbreak of unsurpassed proportions. Yet Bram’s original tale is by far the most frightening, and reeks of an entirely different form of despair: the knowledge that you are fighting an all-encompassing evil, one that delights in the destruction of all men.