Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Where the fang is Visaria?

The Regional Anthem of Visaria
There is a land where winter skies,
Resound with wolf and vulture cries,
Thunder and lightening paint the clouds, 
those dark grey clouds.
Where misty swamps and mountain crags,
Are crowned with bats and alpine stags,
And here we sing before that ancient flag,
Visaria, Visaria, Visaria
(Translated from the High German).

The Forgotten Land of Visaria
As I was growing up there were many ancient lands spoken of by my family. My mother and father told me about our family origins in the UK. There were stories passed down about my Cornish, Irish, Scottish and English ancestors and the way they forged a new life in Australia. Then I married into a German family and began to learn about a whole lot of places on the other side of the English Channel, such as Switzerland, Austria, and Bavaria. Eventually I met someone from Transylvania and read up on the histories of that ancient land and the tales of the infamous Prince Dracula and Countess Bathory. However amongst all this discussion of European regions, there was one land that no one ever talked about. 

It was In the 1980's I first heard the name of the mystical land of Visaria. This forgotten region is little known by many and its mention is only found in important film texts from the 1940's. The occasion of my first hearing of Visaria was on Peter Goers' Late Night Horror Show on Channel 10, Adelaide, South Australia. That evening he was presenting a screening of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), the first meeting of two Universal monsters in one film. As a child, cartoons and other programs had convinced me that it was Transylvania that was the scene of the Universal Monster's horrible supernatural crimes but here I began to see otherwise. Visaria, this land of 'hills, mountains,..forests (Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)', and festive villagers, was also a mecca for mad scientists and monsters alike.

Document 1: Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
The first document to reveal the existence of the region was The Ghost of Frankenstein. It begins with the villagers of Frankenstein deciding to blow up Frankenstein Castle, left deserted by the Frankenstein family for many years since the last appearance of the monster (The Son of Frankenstein (1939). The only occupant of the Castle is Ygor (Bela Lugosi), the hunchbacked friend of the monster. It is while the castle is being demolished that Ygor finds the still living creature (Lon Chaney Jr) encased in sulfur. The creature had been pushed into the castle's basement sulfur pit many years before by Henry Frankenstein's first son, Wolf (Basil Rathbone). As the castle explodes,Ygor and the Monster escape through the wilderness to find Henry Frankenstein's second son, Dr Ludwig Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke). Ludwig is a brain surgeon extraordinaire who has set up practice in Visaria, a peaceful town at the foot of the Alps, fond of singing, dancing and spontaneous village mobs. It is at this point that the location of the Frankenstein saga moves from the Village of Frankenstein to the Visarian region.

Document 2: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
The could be one of the quaint rustic streets of Visaria,
the location of many a village festival. .
In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man we discover that Ludwig's sanitarium is also known as Frankenstein's Castle and that there is a mountain stream that runs beneath the castle and drives the  turbines that power the laboratory. This stream is dammed, the wall of which can be seen adjacent to the castle. This dam is eventually blown up in an attempt to kill the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr)  and the Monster (Bela Lugosi), washing the remains of Ludwig's castle away. It's in this movie that we get exposed to Visaria's wonderful alpine culture with its depiction of a boisterous village festival. We also get to hear a rousing rendition of the the Visarian folk song 'Faro-la Faro-li'

Document 3: House of Frankenstein (1944)
This could be a surviving watchtower from
Dr Ludwig Frankenstein's Castle. 
In Document 3, the Monster (Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man are found frozen in the bowels of the original Frankenstein Castle. The icy discovery is made by the insidious Visarian scientist , Dr Gustav Neimann (Boris Karloff) and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish). This is remarkable seeing as they were last seen battling in Ludwig's castle in Visaria, a town shown here as being some 152 km away by road. The ruins of the original Castle Frankenstein appear with a ruined dam wall reminiscent of Ludwig's Castle. At this point it could be suggested that the writers have actually fiddled with the details put forward in the previous installment to serve their new narrative direction.  Perish the thought. An analysis of the details in the text suggest that there may have been ancient tunnels and glacial caverns linking the two ancestral fortresses of the Frankenstein family. The villages of Frankenstein and Visaria were geographically close, separated by an alpine ridge that can be crossed on foot or by a 152 km journey by road through the nearest alpine pass. When the dam was destroyed in Visaria, the Monster and the Wolf Man were washed through the subterranean tunnels into the cavern below the ruins of the original Frankenstein Castle. This explosion also overwhelmed the second dam wall on the Frankenstein village side. This dam was once a prime example of the rare double wall dam design unique to Visarian/Frankensteinian alpine architecture. It also a prime example of the needs of alpine experimental brain surgeons driving hydroelectric technology.

Visaria, a land of hills, mountains and forests.
Document 4: House of Dracula (1945)
It's in Document 4 that we discover that Visaria is also located in a coastal region. Here we are introduced to Doctor Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), another Visarian brain surgeon, whose house and practice are situated near the Visarian coast. The action starts when Count Dracula (John Carradine) arrives at Edelmann's house claiming to seek a cure for his vampirism. Not long after, Lawrence Talbot, the Wolf Man, also arrives looking for an answer to his supernatural curse. Before long Dr Edelmann is vampirised by Dracula and Lawrence Talbot tries to end his life by throwing himself into the ocean. While rescuing the Wolf Man from his failed watery suicide, the skeletal remains of  Doctor Niemann and a dormant Frankenstein Monster are found in a coastal cave. The Monster and  Dr Niemann had met their demise in the previous installment by sinking into a pool of quick sand, eventually emerging in the cave. Soon Dracula is dead, Dr Edelmann has turned into a homicidal mad scientist vampire and the Monster is laid out in the laboratory ready to be revived. When the curtain comes down on this installment the house is in flames as a hostile village mob storms the premises to send the Universal monsters to a fiery demise.

Where is Visaria?

My scribbled map of the mysterious regions of Visaria and Frankenstein.

The House of Dracula is the last we hear of Visaria. Soon the Universal Monsters had shifted to America and left their European homelands far behind (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). But where is this region of Visaria to be found and how does one book a holiday there? When we look at an atlas some related landmarks jump out. First of all there is Castle Frankenstein located in the west of Germany in the State of Hesse and the Village of Frankenstein located to the east in the State of Saxony. In the South there are the Alps located in the State of Bavaria and the ocean in the far north. As exciting as it is to pinpoint these places, it becomes quickly apparent that the region Visaria is a geographical impossibility. Visaria is located in a fictional Germany of the imagination. It is found in a 1940's American dream of a Europe that is free of war and where the only evil to be found is of supernatural and fantastic origin. In Visaria there are no jackboots only the asphalt-spreader's boots of the Frankenstein monster. In this far off land the only bullets fired are those of silver and not of Nazi lead. In the wartime Europe of the imagination, mad scientists are obsessed with creating artificial life and not death on a massive scale. The only way to holiday in Visaria is to find a copy of these cinema classics, grab some popcorn and while away the hours in the company of The Monster, The Count, The Wolf Man and the feistiest village mob this side of Transylvania. Faro-La, Faro-Li!

The Universal Frankenstein Series

Frankenstein (1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
House of Frankenstein (1944)
House of Dracula (1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Sunday, 11 May 2014

'Elvis and Me' or 'Drawing a Long Bow'.

A dramatic recreation complete with hound dog.
Recently it was Elvis' birthday. On the 8th of January this year, Elvis Aaron Presley would of been 79 if he was still alive...or would come out of hiding. I clearly remember the day he died. I was 5 years old and in my first year of primary school. Even at such a young age I knew that a living treasure had died and that some things would never be the same again. A few years later I remember watching my younger brother play with his Elvis Paper Doll Activity Set and explaining to him who Elvis was, soldier, movie star, King of Rock-n-roll, and why he wore such amazing sequined jump suits. But what many don't realise is that Elvis and I have a lot in common and a connection of sorts. We are both male, singers, wear jeans and married beautiful women. I own a copy of Bubba-Hotep. He was a king and I am a Castle. I even got to impersonate him as 'The Pharaoh' in an amateur production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dream Coat back in 94.  Outside of these ties that bind me to the King, I didn't believe there could possibly be much else.  I was wrong, oh so wrong.

I strongly believe that some places on this earth are nexus points of mystical and mythic power. Places such as Loch Ness, Castle Frankenstein and Hanging Rock are places where fact and the fantastic caress each other in an intimate embrace.  I believe that in Adelaide, South Australia, Semaphore Beach is one of those places. In fact in my own life, Semaphore Beach has conspired to draw my fate together intrinsically with Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll.  You may ask 'How can that can be?' I will now tell you the fantastic tale of manifest destiny that drew us together.

The  beachside view of the Semaphore Carnival
Recently I was visiting my brother who lives not too far from Semaphore Beach. We were talking about the local seaside carnival and the vintage carousel that's been there for years. This beautiful merry-go-round has been on the Semaphore foreshore for the last for 76 years. The carousel was built in Adelaide by Len Northey in the 1920’s as was one of earliest electric powered models. With its forty handcrafted horses, it is said by some to be the largest operating carousel in Australia, beating all other takers by four wooden ponies. Originally situated at Henley Beach, the carousel was moved to the Jubilee Oval for six months during an expo in 1936 and then found a new home in it’s current location in 1938 ( 

Me as Billy Bigelow posing on the Carousel on the bottom right with
Jo Lawry as Julie Jordon on my left.
On top of my city's sentimental love affair with the sideshow ride, I also had my own connection to the carousel. Back in 1995, my first year out teaching, I was given the lead role in the school production of Carousel. The character I played was that of a handsome carnival roustabout, Billy Bigelow, who uses his sex appeal to entice young ladies onto the ride. It's while he is working that he meets and falls in love with, Julie Jordon, and love soon blossoms. Incidentally, the role of Julie was played by Jo Lawry, at that time a final year student who's currently carving out a successful career as a vocalist singing back-up for Sting (see Jo in the Oscar winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom (2013). However Billie and Julie's romance is frowned upon by those around them, and through a series of related circumstances, they find themselves unemployed.  Soon the couple are married and Julie falls pregnant. Upon hearing the news of his impending fatherhood, Billy is over whelmed with the responsibility of being a parent, especially if the child is a girl. This sense of responsibly misguidedly leads Billy to his tragic death in a robbery aimed at ensuring his child's financial security. Following his death, Billy finds himself in heaven with a chance to return to earth to try and guide his young daughter through to a better life.

The Semaphore Carousel

With the option of building a full size carousel well outside the meagre school production budget, the director opted to open the show with a silent film that showed the meeting of the two leads on the carousel. And so it was on one sunny afternoon that some of the cast, and a film crew from the school media department, headed down to Semaphore to film the opening sequence on the Semaphore carousel. There I was, playing a carnival roustabout for the cameras, pretending to romance my leading lady, while riding the Semaphore carousel. There I was, a cinematic legend in my own lunch time, being recorded for posterity on celluloid (well video tape anyway).

As I pondered these sweet memories, the discussion with my brother turned to the ferris wheel that is also a permanent fixture on the foreshore. As he did so, a bombshell was dropped that sent ripples through mystical realms. This ferris wheel had cradled the very royal backside of the King of Rock-n-Roll himself. Now I knew that Elvis had never performed in Australia and even if he had, a trip to Semaphore probably wasn't on the cards. So what was the story with this chunk of Elvis history? In 1964, Elvis appeared in a movie called Roustabout. The movie tells the story of a singing biker, Charlie Rogers (Elvis Presley) who gets work at a traveling carnival. After being run off the road by an angry Father (Leif Erickson) who has caught him flirting with his daughter Kathy (Joan Freeman), Charlie gets work as a roustabout at their family carnival while he waits for his bike to get repaired. It is here that he meets the tough carnival owner, Maggie (Barbara Stanwyck), who is also Kathy's mother.  (IMDb Plot: Roustabout (1964). Of the story IMDb says, 

Along the way, Charlie (who's got a chip on his shoulder about being an orphan) somehow learns about family values from this vaguely dysfunctional one (IMDb Plot: Roustabout (1964). 

It was in a scene with Freeman that Elvis rode what would become the Semaphore ferris wheel and serenaded her with the the song  It's a Wonderful World. The scenes featuring the ferris wheel were filmed in a cow paddock in Seven Oaks, California, with the King riding in carriage number 2. But how did the ferris wheel come to be at semaphore 50 Years later? It arrived in Australia in 2000 when it was featured on a barge under the Sydney Harbour bridge during New Year Celebrations. In 2004 the 12 carriage ferris wheel was given an over haul with new carriages and came to reside in its current location.

A few weeks later I returned to Semaphore and began to ponder these two wonderful artefacts of carnival history before me. It was there, surrounded by seagulls and sideshows, that I began to feel chills running up and down my spine.  Elvis and I were now connected by a strange cord, woven in the mystic merry-go-round that is the Semaphore Carnival. Both Elvis and I had played carnival roustabouts on film in stories that had explored the concept of the itinerants search for home and family. Both of us had ridden a carnival ride to woo our romantic leads and now these rides were only metres from each other. Both rides had searched for a home and had found it at Semaphore, ferris wheel here, carousel there. Roustabout here, roustabout there. Elvis here and me there. I even owned a copy of Joan Freeman in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Could this be coincidence? I think not! Elvis and I were inextricably connected once again, separated by time but not by space. The long bow of destiny had been drawn.

Sometimes at night when I close my eyes, I begin to hear the haunting music of the carnival steam organ. Once again I am there, riding the carousel as the sun slowly sets. As my horse circles round to the front of the pavilion, I look over and see Elvis coming over the top of the ferris wheel. We both look at each other, wave and share a knowing smile, aware that we are inextricably linked forever. And on we ride, long into the night......