Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Bookhounds Technicolor

Having discussed Sordid and Arabesque London for Bookhounds, the time has come to talk Technicolor. To do that I'm going to reference an example that may at first seem out of place: The Satanic Rites of Dracula, the last Hammer Horror film to feature Christopher Lee as the Count. I picked this up as part of a bundle of 10 films for 10 dollars; included in it were such gems as Snowbeast (Jaws knock-off set at a Colorado ski resort) and House on Haunted Hill (Vincent Price chews the scenery in this locked-room ghost mansion thriller). Satanic Rites deserves to be in that company. It's a pretty standard B-movie shocker with plenty of blood and sexy bits for your viewing pleasure. I don't recommend buying it - not unless you can get it for $1, as I did - but it's worth a rental. Go see!

Now that you've seen it, let's talk Bookhounds.

To begin with, I should point out straight away that apart from the 1970s aesthetic there's nothing here that couldn't have happened in the 1930s. The technology, the style, the characters are all pretty much interchangeable, bar a few hairstyle concerns. Most of it is set in ye ramblinge olde Englishe country home, complete with pleasant woodlands for your walking pleasure.  There's very little of the ultra-modern here, which is one of the reasons the Hammer Horror aesthetic works so well for Bookhounds.

In fact, in the main rulebook they reference Hammer Horror by name. There is another London, garish and glorious. This is the Technicolor world of Hammer Films, in vibrant color – and the color is always bright red or lurid green. Cults wear rich robes; monsters radiate unearthly glows; scarlet blood smears jaws and talons and lips and other parts ... All very cinematic, I'm sure; but with that in mind, what does Satanic Rites tell us about a Technicolor London?

To begin with, it tells us that London is London. Every time Satanic Rites wants to establish the scene, it show a quick montage of famous landmarks. A Sordid London might set its scenes in nameless back alleys and Soho nightclubs; an Arabesque can take any aspect of the city and turn it into something glorious. Technicolor London is all about the bling; Nelson's Column, the British Museum, the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, the Palace, the Tower. Even the relatively ordinary laboratory of Professor Keeley is in a rather splendid Georgian terrace. If there's ever a campaign in which the characters are trying to find out what really lives in the forgotten tube station under the British Museum, or whether the green men in the Jewel Tower hide some sinister secret, Technicolor is that campaign.

In that London, there are mooks. Hordes and hordes of the little devils; three of them go down in a hail of gunfire or are strangled in the first ten minutes of the film. For that matter there are also minions, slightly higher class mooks who perhaps get to lounge naked on Satanic altars or chant along with the ritual leader, but who don't have any significant plot function and will probably get whalloped by the heroes before too long.

As might be expected, these mooks are occasionally plot-stupid. By that I mean they'll do daft things, purely for the sake of keeping the plot moving. There's one moment about a quarter of the way through when Van Helsing's granddaughter breaks into the cellars of Pelham House and discovers, to her horror, that there's half a dozen vampires hidden there. Had this been any other picture, she'd have been sucked dry within half a minute; as this is Hammer Horror her clothes get torn but, as luck would have it, all those vampires are chained down - for no good reason I can think of - so she manages to avoid being bitten.

Not that the heroes have plot immunity. Death stalks everyone, and while it does play favorites to a point, there's still every chance that the heroes will get theirs before the final reel. See that nice secretary lady? All she did was turn up in one scene to make the tea but clearly that meant the cult had to mark her for death and, since Dracula's giving her a nibble, it's a good bet she'll be back before too long. In a Technicolor campaign there should be death, and lots of it. Bodies should be turning up in closets, and the butler the characters met at the door of their friend's mansion could easily turn up as a zombie in the following scene. 

There should be technology, and you shouldn't be afraid to use it against the players. Twice in Satanic Rites an electronic eye becomes plot significant; there are security cameras everywhere; the cultists use silenced weapons; some of the action takes place at an ultra-modern skyscraper. Don't think for a minute that this is 1970s stuff, so you can't use it. The electronic eye was a viable security option in the early 1930s, the Nazis had security cameras in 1942 - a little out of time, but not by much - the first silencers were patented in 1902, and electronic alarms were common enough to feature as a significant plot device in a 1915 silent movie. So if you happen to be designing a secret Nazi Satanic lair in the heart of London, why shouldn't they be using all of those technologies? Don't feel you have to limit this to existing tech either; if there's one thing the 1930s are famous for, it's death rays, those old pulp standbys that never worked but which fired so many imaginations. There ought to be a mad scientist out there somewhere working on a gizmo or a plague to wipe out mankind; it's only proper.

Or consider architecture; yes, this is the London of bling, but this is also the London of the modernist movement. Why shouldn't that new office building, built by the mysterious reclusive industrialist, hide some terrible secret? Its clean lines and Deco touches could be the facade behind which an ageless evil lurks!

Finally, it should be personal. Dracula, if he had any sense, would have made absolutely sure Van Helsing never got anywhere near his office block; the cult assassin, rather than playing with his victims, would have put bullets right through their foreheads. Yet Dracula must have his revenge, so he risks his entire plot to toy with Van Helsing. The cult assassin must show how clever he is, so rather than blow their brains out he captures them and puts them in a deathtrap. Funny how the heroes always seem to escape from those. The point is, death's too good for those pesky heroes. They have to be humiliated, crushed, the last vestiges of those prized Pillars of Sanity swept away, for the villain to feel as though he's really triumphed. The villains take this sort of thing very personally, and they tailor the demise to fit the hero.

That's Technicolor; fascinating, blatant, sinful and technology-driven. I hope you find this useful! Next time: something completely different ...

1 comment:

  1. This is once again, great. I'd love you to cross post this on the Pelgrane Press blog with linkage.