Monday, October 8, 2018

THE VELVET VAMPIRE 1971

“Susan, have you ever noticed how men envy us?”
“Envy us, how?”
“The pleasure we have that only we can have. We can’t help it. It’s just our nature, the way we are. And in their secret hearts they hate us for it because they can never know what it’s like.”


I was never much into vampire movies growing up. That I’ve managed to see so many of them…Dracula, his brides, sons, and daughters included…is due to my older sister; a dyed-in-the-wool horror fan who used her size and age advantage to make sure that every Saturday night the family TV was tuned to Channel 2’s Creature Features, a double-barreled parade of classic and (mostly) not-so-classic horror and sci-fi flicks hosted by the bespectacled Bob Wilkins. Since it was either vampires or go to bed early on one of the few nights I was allowed to stay up, the Gothic bloodsuckers invariably won out.

My feelings about vampire movies weren’t rooted in anything specific, merely that they failed to capture my imagination because I never found them to be very scary. Monsters being more to my taste back then, to my way of thinking vampire movies were essentially just Gothic romances where the “necking” was taken to its literal extreme. (I do recall having had this weird, neat-freak reaction to the way vampires in movies always allowed the blood to run down their faces after feeding. Here they were, these genteel, over-refined Counts turned out in fastidious Victorian finery, yet dribbling blood down the sides of their mouths like babies without bibs. What were all those lace handkerchiefs for? Weren’t there any anal-retentive, OCD vampires?)
But whatever the reason, it was clear my personal indifference to vampires was out of step with the timbre of the times. The most vivid example being the whole Dark Shadows craze that swept through my high school in 1971. For the unversed, Dark Shadows was a popular Gothic daytime TV soap opera about a lovesick vampire who couldn’t remember his lines. Each weekday, kids by the hundreds would race home from school to catch its 4pm broadcast, the following day devoting entire lunchtimes to recounting to one another the sundry supernatural exploits of Barnabas Collins and the rest of the blooper-prone denizens of Collinwood.

Dark Shadows and vampire mania hit my best friend Smedley particularly hard (I attended a Catholic boy’s school where, for some reason, we all addressed one another by our last names), he being so enamored of the show that he took to wearing a cape to school in our Sophomore year. Decades before the term cosplay even existed, Smedley could be seen striding around campus, cape billowing in the wind behind his blue jeans and Adidas sneakers.
The 1972 release of Blacula, the first African-American vampire, emboldened Smedley to add to his ensemble: a heavy wooden cane with a polished silver skull handle, a pentagram pinkie ring with a glass eye in its center, and a black, wide-brimmed hat. Alas, the school’s principal, who’d heretofore proved uncommonly tolerant of a kid wandering the halls of a Catholic school looking like the Prince of Darkness, ultimately intervened, putting a halt to Smedley’s sartorial shenanigans the minute he began taking on the appearance of a teenage Super Fly. Besides, there were no lockers big enough for that hat. 
The Lady in Red Stalks Her Prey

But the Dark Shadows phenomenon was just one aspect of the vampire renaissance of the 1970s. Following a decline in popularity during the sci-fi/atomic monster craze of the ‘50’s, vampire movies received a much-needed genre transfusion when relaxed censorship regulations in the late-1960s granted filmmakers broader latitude in the depiction of violence and the display of nudity. Free to render explicit all the sexual metaphor and eroticism heretofore only hinted at in previous vampire flicks; there appeared a rash of fang & coffin features virtually awash in technicolor blood and upholstered with acres of exposed flesh.
Along similar lines, shifts in the ‘70s cultural landscape (race relations, the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, gay rights) precipitated occasionally ingenious–but mostly silly–reimaginings of the traditional vampire myth.
Blacula’s William Marshal was cinema’s first African-American vampire, but there were also Kung Fu vampires (The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires – 1974), swashbuckling vampires (Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter – 1974), and hippie vampires (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death – 1971). But most popular of all…for reasons both subversive and prurient…was the female vampire.

Among the glut of horror films about female vampires that flooded the market at the time, films with heavy-breathing titles like Vampire Lovers (1970), Vampyros Lesbos (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), Daughters of Darkness (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971), only The Velvet Vampire had the distinction of being directed by a woman.
Celeste Yarnall as Diane Le Fanu
Michael Blodgett as Lee Ritter
Sherry Miles as Susan Ritter

Vapid young couple Lee and Susan Ritter (Michel Blodgett & Sherry Miles, both looking as though they’d just wandered in from a Sun-In© hair lightener commercial) meet vampy vampire Diane Le Fanu (Celeste Yarnall) at a Los Angeles art gallery (The [Bram] Stoker Gallery...wink, wink). Though they've been married but a scant two years, the reptilian Lee instant seems to forget his marital status and begins blatantly flirting with the raven-haired Diane, whom we’ve just seen overpower and kill an assailant on her way to the gallery (a girl’s gotta eat). Meanwhile, Susan struggles hard to process…well, everything.

When Diane invites the blank-eyed pair to spend the weekend at her villa in the Mojave Desert, Lee, ever the horndog, leaps at the offer, while worrywart Susan harbors serious, poorly-articulated misgivings. Their drive through the desert is plagued by blazing heat, a curious absence of other drivers on the road, car trouble, and weirdly hostile locals—all ominous harbingers and portents of danger signaling to our couple (imagine a debauched, significantly denser Brad and Janet from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) to turn back. Yet, our intrepid, dull-witted pair soldiers on until their stalled car finally has them all but ready to pack it in. But, lo and behold, out of nowhere appears Diane to the rescue in her canary yellow dune buggy!

Yes, although covered from head to toe in the kind of mod, midi-skirts-and-boots ensembles favored by Ann Marie during the final season of That Girl, Diane is clearly a vampire who doesn’t mind the sun. And since it’s already been revealed that she’s also a vampire who can cast a reflection in a mirror; we’ve been sufficiently alerted to the fact that the gender of our predatory protagonist is not to be the only deliberate genre subversion The Velvet Vampire has up its cape. 
Diamonds...Daisies...Snowflakes...That Ghoul
  
The trio’s arrival at Diane’s remote desert domicile sees more Gothic clichés upended, as the sun-drenched villa and barren surrounding landscape stand as the living (if one can use that word when speaking of the undead) antithesis to the gloomy castles and foggy moors of Transylvanian legend. Yet the occasional nod to convention can still be found. The nearby grounds feature a well-populated cemetery which harbors a dark, heavily-guarded secret, and the film allows for Diane to have a devoted, passive, Renfield-like manservant named Juan (Jerry Daniels) who supplies his mistress with victims, but gives no evidence of personally having a taste for insects.

Having lured the prey to her lair, Diane embarks on an aggressive but vague course of action involving dual seduction, voyeuristic stalking, and mutual dream invasion (Lee and Susan share the same surreal nightmare in which Diane is seen as a dissevering entity…but to what purpose?). The latter point is what fuel’s The Velvet Vampire’s only suspense, for we’re as in the dark about Diane’s intentions for the couple as they are. Because her ambiguous objectives have to be carried out before the weekend is over (or before our slow-on-the-pickup newlyweds catch on), the element of time factors in as a source of narrative tension. 
Juan (Jerry Daniels), the vigilant vampire valet, catches Susan snooping around
The plot of The Velvet Vampire share similarities with the far superior Belgian erotic vampire film Daughters of Darkness, in that both involve sexually-fluid female vampires who become obsessed with couples in less-than-satisfying relationships. Indeed, remove the vampire element, and The Velvet Vampire even foreshadows the aforementioned The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) in its often-humorous depiction (both intentional and un) of the ease with which bland innocence can be corrupted by sophisticated evil.
A likely contributing factor to The Velvet Vampire's poor boxoffice performance and rapid retreat from theaters in 1971 is the fact that both films were October releases that overlapped. In the SF Bay area, Daughters of Darkness (marketed to the arthouse crowd) came out two weeks earlier, which must have made The Velvet Vampire look like a bargain-basement, Drive-In imitation by comparison.
top: The Velvet Vampire / bottom: Daughters of Darkness
In both films a beautiful female vampire insinuates herself into the lives of a handsome couple. 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Produced by the legendary Roger Corman and one of the earliest releases from his newly-formed company New World Pictures, The Velvet Vampire lives up (or down) to just what you’d expect from the prolific exploitation producer/director known as the “King of the Bs.” There’s stilted dialog, low-production values, clumsy staging, unconvincing special effects, erratic pacing, and some really monumentally bad acting. All of which go toward making the film both rousingly entertaining and something of a must-see howler for fans of unintentional humor.
"Diane doesn't turn me on. She's a desert freak!"
That being said, The Velvet Vampire is also a film--against all odds and wholly within the restricted confines of exploitation and its own prohibitively modest budget--nevertheless works. And rather spectacularly.
What gives it distinction and spares it from being just another one of those exploitation horror movies driven by the stale grindhouse axiom: “The men are killed, the women are raped,” is that this horror film bears the rare, indelible stamp of having been directed and co-written by a woman: Stephanie Rothman.

Director of one of my favorite off-brand beach party movies It’s a Bikini World (1967), Corman protégé Stephanie Rothman clearly hasn’t a lot to work with in The Velvet Vampire in terms of either money or onscreen talent; but evident in nearly every frame of the movie is her humor, artistic vision, creative ingenuity, and feminist commitment to subverting as many of the overused tropes and sexist clichés associated with horror movies as possible. All while satisfying the requirements of the exploitation genre itself: to supply a higher degree of sensationalized violence and nudity than available in most mainstream films of the time. 
Rothman in a 1973 interview: "I'm very tired of the whole tradition in western art
 in which women are always presented nude and men aren't."

PERFORMANCES
There’s a slick professionalism to the look of The Velvet Vampire that’s hard to deny (cinematography is by onetime Claude Lelouch cameraman Daniel LaCambre), and Rothman’s approach to the material suggests a psychological thoughtfulness and attentiveness to theme that’s rare in the realm of exploitation. But these pluses are at serious odds with the faint, but nevertheless pervasive, air of amateurism attendant in the production overall. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the film’s cast. Nearly everyone comes across as being the best that could be acquired for the price.
In this priceless exchange, Diane tells Lee that if he's willing to take the time to warm up
 her dune buggy properly, he can ride it as long and as hard as he likes

Third-billed Celeste Yarnall is really the film’s chief asset as the sensuous vampire who may or may not be simply a delusional woman suffering from a rare blood disease. She doesn't have a lot of range, and the role doesn't call for it, but she can act, knows her way around a funny line, and gives the film's most assured performance. Something that can't be said for the rest of the cast. Heavy-lidded Michael Blodgett might be the most high-profile member of the cast, having achieved an immortality of sorts as the leopard-skinned-bikini-wearing gigolo Lance Rocke in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), but he’s an inert presence and practically sleepwalks though his role (which kinda suits the film’s subtext pertaining to passive men and resourceful women.)
However, the worst offender (thus, my personal favorite) is Sherry Miles, an attractive actress who, when other characters are speaking, always manages to look like she’s translating their words from English into Mandarin Chinese, then back again to English in her head. Possessed of vacant eyes and Dallesandro-flat line delivery, she gives an astonishingly awful performance of the sort that sends MST3K fans into wild ecstatics. I've never seen Miles in anything else, so I can't tell if her flawless depiction of a whiny California bubblehead is comic brilliance or simply doin’ what comes natur’lly. But either way, I treasure every moment she's onscreen.
Interviews with the director and DVD commentary by Celeste Yarnall affirm that Miles, a former teen model who'd achieved a level of success on TV, was "difficult" during the filming. The most startling news of all was that she had her acting coach (!?) on set and consulted with them frequently

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Movies being what they were, Hollywood being what it is, and heterosexual men being what they are, the whole Lesbian Vampire Craze was but a ‘70s pop-culture mashup of age-old sex and violence tropes customized for the Sexual Revolution and the Women’s Movement. Facing criticism for their violent victimization of women and routine depiction of them as passive targets of male aggression, horror films hoped to make amends by turning the tables and reassigning the strong-but-sexy femme fatale paradigm of film noir to the vampire genre. In this context the woman is allowed to propel plot and be an agent of violent action while still pandering to the conventional male perception that women possessing such qualities (strength, aggression, self-preservation) are essentially dangerous, to be feared, and not actually "real" women.  
The lesbian vampires in these films were seldom (if ever) really lesbian, rather, they were the usual projected male fantasy: women of such voracious sexual appetite that they are drawn to both sexes equally. If a female preference was shown be the vampire, it was invariably conveyed in ways which reinforced butch/fem - dominant/passive stereotypes.

But during the era of the buddy-picture, the anti-hero, and all the many male-centric movie trends of the time; the image of woman as self-directed predator was not only a refreshing change of pace, but this female-centric angle brought about the welcome introduction of the heroine who is capable of saving herself, or, better still, rescuing the hero.
The Velvet Vampire largely plays by the genre rules, but from its haunting and surreal dream sequences to its subtle feminist self-awareness, it remains a very watchable film that uses the feminine gaze to play fast and loose with what we've come to expect from a horror movie.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
It wasn’t until I was in film school and saw F. W. Murnau’s brilliant Nosferatu (1922) that my antipathy towards vampire movies underwent a change. That was about 1976. I became a full-fledged convert when I saw Werner Herzog’s mesmerizing remake of Nosferatu in 1979. Since then I’ve come to appreciate a side of vampire lore unconnected to my childhood desire to find the “scare” in those Creature Feature movies I saw as a kid.
What Murnau and Herzog inspired me to better appreciate was the nightmarish, melancholy side of what a vampire curse suggested. To be doomed to an eternity of unappeasable longing (for blood and for love, as vampires are usually linked to some kind of romantic loss) is to forever be forced to confront and live with the loss of hope. It’s a dreadful fate to contemplate, but one so humanly compelling that vampire films which even tangentially address this issue (The Hunger- 1983 and The Addiction -1995, come to mind) tend to become favorites.
In order to meet the more sensational requirements of the exploitation genre, Rothman's screenplay (co-written with Maurice Charles and her husband Charles S. Swartz) had minimal opportunity to address the side of the story relating to Diane's loneliness and bereaved longing for her (very, very) late husband

The Velvet Vampire is not on par with either of the above-mentioned films by any reasonable aesthetic comparison, but in terms of the capturing a feminine perspective and breathing new life (there’s that word again) into the vampire mythos, I’d say Stephanie Rothman’s film is a more than worthy member of the genre sisterhood.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

11 comments:

  1. Good to read your writing again, Ken. I have to admit to having checked your page daily lately, in eager anticipation of a new post since it's been a while after Portnoy. Hope you are well.

    Vampires are far from my own interests, but the personal details you insert to set the stage never fail to make me chuckle. I never even realized how much the blood stained faces bothered me before you voiced it in your write up! Maybe this at least partly explains my aversion to toothy dramatics. (Kudos to Smedley by the way; my 14-year-old gothic-leaning self would've been very envious of his getup, and I salute him for showing up to school in a full cape and other regalia!)

    As much I like reading your takes on movies familiar to me, it's so enlightening to read your posts on movies I've never heard of! I thank you for providing this education on little seen and/or forgotten films. By being so female-driven, The Velvet Vampire (what a forgettable title that is, though) sure sounds like a worthwhile curiosity. Maybe I'll catch it on YouTube someday.

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    1. Hello, Sandra
      Can't think of a nice "return" than knowing someone actually missed you! I'm well, just took time off to work on a side writing project that unexpectedly gravitated toward center.
      Speaking of writing, you have such an enviable way with words, am I in error in assuming you're a writer? You express yourself so well.

      I'm pleased you enjoy reading about some of these obscure movies. I like writing about them because by now regular visitors to the site know not to take my essays as recommendations, merely shedding some light on films that have slipped through the cracks. Often deservedly so.
      I had to laugh when you noted how forgettable a title you found The Velvet Vampire to be. Seems the film had a hard time knowing what to call itself, starting out as "Through the Looking Glass" and then "Blood Lover" before settling on a title that sounds like a bar in Quentin Tarantino movie.
      I find the movie visually interesting (use of color, etc.), but unless you watch it with friends and chuckle at its occasional ineptitude and stilted performances, you might find it a tad trying.
      Good to hear from you, and thanks again for your kind comments!

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    2. Thank you for your compliments. I am pretty flummoxed by them (especially coming from such a talented scribe as yourself), as putting these comments together is such a challenge for me, and I don't think I express myself very well in writing. But I'm glad to come off that way.

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  2. Hi Ken...I agree with you that vampire films are not really scary despite the bright red blood and gore in those old Christopher Lee America International films...but I have always found them somewhat sexy as well. And I too was a Dark Shadows fan on weekday afternoons at 4 pm, but then when the 1990 revival was done, I fell in love with Ben Cross as Barnabas. I need to write about that one!

    I’m excited to see The Velvet Vampire, peopled as it is with lushly gorgeous actors in various stages of undress, including that hottie from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls! I look forward to seeing it!

    So delicious to read the latest Le Cinema Dream—a perfect delight!
    - Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      It's so strange that the whole Dark Shadows thing didn't grip me at all. I was really out of the loop at school. I only came to appreciate it (and then, for all the wrong reasons) much, much later when YouTube featured reams of blooper footage from the show. I absolutely adore how everybody kept it together in such melodramatic fashion while sets fell, props malfunctioned, and lines were forgotten left and right. Brilliance - especially Grayson Hall - who could hang onto an expression of distress for as long as it took for a line to come back to her.

      I'd all but forgotten about the Ben Cross iteration of Dark Shadows!

      As a genre, I think I like my vampires either really tortured and sad, or campy. The romantic ones don't do it. The Velvet Vampire has camp to spare. Plus, the main reason I was interested at all was the hope that Michael Blodgett would appear in less than he did in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. He does, and that's a major plus, but seriously, Sherry Miles' performance is my favorite thing. I have no idea where some of her line readings come from. She makes awfulness an art form.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Chris! Always appreciate your input!

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  3. Great writeup, Ken, but, damn, I can't figure out whether or not I've seen this! Of course I know the title and he stills look familiar, but I have no recollection of it.

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    1. Ha! In a way, what you're saying is precisely the problem with so many '70s exploitation films. Riding the crest of whatever fad was trending at the time (biker films, LSD exposes, beach party) they were all made so quickly to fill those drive-in double features, came a time they started to look so much alike, you couldn't tell some of them apart and weren't sure if you've seen it or not.
      I find that to be true of a lot of those Hammer Gothics my sister was so enamored of. They all had Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and I was never sure which ones I's seen. And I certainly never remembered the plots.

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  4. Hi Ken,

    I saw this only once, back in the 70s with Scream of the Demon Lover. I don’t remember liking it (and don’t remember the co-feature at all) but for some reason I still remember so many individual scenes. Now I realize that may have had something to do with the cinematographer? I had no idea who it even was until you mentioned him. The dune buggy, the house, the colors, the Blodgett.

    And sadly, of all things, I just read today that Celeste Yarnall died. And Sherry Miles! Yikes! The only other feature I’ve seen her in is The Todd Killings. The “bubblehead” comes naturally I think. It kills me that she was “difficult” on the set. Was it beneath her??

    And I have to ask it you’ve seen Anne Biller’s The Love Witch from 2016? It captures the era of The Velvet Vampire and Beyond the VOD so well it’s not even satire. It actually becomes a drive-in movie from 1970—I’d say third on a triple bill. My boyfriend walked in when I was watching it he said, “Oh God, is this that Tom Selleck thing again?” I think he was referring to Daughters of Satan from 1972 which he caught me watching once. Anyway, The Love Witch is definitely an oddity well worth checking out.

    Thanks for another great memory!
    Max

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    1. Hey Max
      I am so flabbergasted to hear of Celeste Yarnall's death! I don't know when the Blu-ray came out, but listening to her talk about the film on the commentary track so recently made someone who's work I really didn't know, seem very much of the here and now. Bizarre that she would die just as I was putting the finishing touches on this (I'd read she died Oct. 7th at age 74). Although it seems she did a lot of TV I think this was her only leading role in a film. I know I saw her on a video at one of those celebrity conventions, and she was hawking some embarrassing Elvis is still alive DVD.

      Anyhow, very impressive that you actually saw this during its original double-bill run. I have no time-specific memory of it, but the title has come up over the years in cult movie circles.

      Given how awful she is in the film, it amuses me to think Sherry Miles was a bit of a problem. Rothman alludes to it being born of her insecurity and needing a lot of (apparently exhausting) reassurance. Yarnall hints that she was as whiny and obstinate as her onscreen character. But that bit about an on-set drama coach...Miles should sue.

      I actually own a copy of Biller's The Love Witch and I too thought there has to be some inspiration/influence from The Velvet Vampire and all those other color-saturated exploitation films of the time.
      And you're right. It actually feels like you're watching a Drive-In movie from the '70s. The look is spot-on.

      I laughed at the mention of DAUGHTERS OF SATAN (and the idea of being "caught" watching it AGAIN). I've wondered about that movie and have come close to checking it out. I know it's usually up and running on YouTube.
      Thanks for commenting, Max. As the only person thus far who has even seen the film, you provided the original release context (double bill) I don't really recall.
      Always informative and interesting contributions from you. Much appreciated.

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  5. Hi Ken,
    Ah, Dark Shadows! I too was about 12 when I would race home from school to see my favorite vampires and werewolves. However, I guess I must have been on the cusp of some incipient awareness of "camp" because I recall being both horrified - and horrified at how awful the whole thing was. Your description of Grayson Hall's acting was absolutely priceless; I'd forgotten those long, quivering looks and your interpretation floored me and fits perfectly.
    I've never seen any of the vampire movies you mention, but I do believe a whole new world may be opening up for me! I started off reading your review of The Velvet Vampire thinking that it really wasn't my tea cup, but finished with a resolution to find it if I could. I also have to ask my self if the prospect of some 70s male pulchitrude is worth putting up with a film that is, as you say, a bit "trying" and I have to answer....well, yes.
    This is my first post on your site. I discovered you about 5 months ago and have become an avid fan, slowing going through your reviews. As so many people have commented before, I enjoy your unique combination of humor and incisiveness. You've made me look at old favorites in ways I had never thought of, and inspired me to seek out new...meat, as it were. Is it too late to comment on some of your older reviews?
    Please continue to keep me distracted from all the horror that is going on around us! Would that our only problem was the undead...
    Huston

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    1. Hello Huston!
      Coming upon your comment here after just retreating from the horrors of my Twitter newsfeed proved just the tonic for my heavy spirit. Thank you so much! I am so pleased you have enjoyed some of my essays, thrilled even more that you took the time out to comment on this one.

      Yes, I think you might find much toenjoy about THE VELVET VAMPIRE, especially given that your awareness of camp was so well-honed at an early age (I remember thinking the show was super-cheap and bargain basement, but I wonder when "camp" became something I was actually aware of as an aesthetic?)
      If you respond to this film, perhaps you will enjoy an vampire film experience akin to my late-in-life discovery of the Giallo genre: I simply devoured it. To use your phrase, a new world opened up for me and Italian Giallo thrillers are now a huge favorite of mine.
      If you should ever check this film out, I'd love it if you'd stop back and share with us what you thought about it. And please, feel free to comment on any old posts you like. Comments on older posts go through a "moderator approval" first (for spam reasons) but I always respond. I learn a great deal when I read about how people respond to film, even more when seen in the context of their lives. And, indeed, aren't we in need of some distraction from what's going on these days?
      Your contribution here is a welcome one. I hope it won't be the last. Nice to meet you, Huston!

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