Monday, October 17, 2016

RIP Ted V. Mikels (1929-2016)

Less than a month after the passing of Herschell Gordon Lewis, we must report the passing of another foundation block of 1960s exploitation cinema and showmanship: the irrepressible Ted V. Mikels, who died today in hospice at the age of 87.

He was born Theodore Vincent Mikacevic in the state of Oregon (where he made his first picture, STRIKE ME DEADLY, in 1963), but produced most of his work in and around Las Vegas. Mikels was best-known for such horror films as THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES (1968, featuring Tura Satana), THE CORPSE GRINDERS (1971), and BLOOD ORGY OF THE SHE-DEVILS (1973), but he continued to make films till the very end, cranking out a CORPSE GRINDERS sequel in 2002, three ASTRO-ZOMBIES pictures between 2004 and 2012, and much more. He was also accomplished in other areas of exploitation: DR. SEX (1964), ONE SHOCKING MOMENT (1965), THE BLACK KLANSMAN (1966), THE GIRL IN GOLD BOOTS (1968) and THE DOLL SQUAD (1973, which established a set-up very similar to that of the later television phenomenon CHARLIE'S ANGELS).  Mikels also produced the notorious THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS (1966), THE WORM EATERS (1977), and was the cameraman on John A. Bushelman's DAY OF THE NIGHTMARE (1965), Gerd Oswald's AGENT FROM H.A.R.M. (1966) and Bob Clark's CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972). The IMDb lists 25 directorial credits for him, as well as 31 production credits, and 16 as a cinematographer. His last feature was PARANORMAL EXTREMES: TEXT MESSAGES FROM THE DEAD (2015), on which he performed all three functions.

Mikels was particularly noteworthy for his cinematography, which made unusual use of garish color gel lighting. Mikels' work received its first notable attention in the 1986 RE SEARCH book INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILMS, which also profiled Lewis, Russ Meyer, Joe Sarno, Doris Wishman and others. Mikels lived and breathed show business; aware that his movies alone might not sustain interest, he made himself interesting, sporting a flamboyant waxed mustache, wearing a boar's tusk pendant, and lived for many years in a castle with a bevy of young companions in a polyamorous lifestyle. He was, above all, a rebel; as he told V. Vale in his INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILMS interview: "I'm not in the Director's Guild, not in any guild. I just don't want anyone telling me what to do, or what I cannot do." He was also the subject of a 2014 documentary, THE WILD WORLD OF TED V. MIKELS.

Of his movies, THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES was recently issued on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and THE DOLL SQUAD and MISSION: KILLFAST are out on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome. Many others are available not only on DVD but via streaming. Indeed, most are available for free streaming by Amazon Prime members.

Ted V. Mikels and Herschell Gordon Lewis at the Cinema Wasteland Convention, October 2002.
These guys. Say what you like about their films - really, how good they were is ultimately far less important than THAT they were. How much poorer the movies as a whole would have been without their anarchic glee.

Text (c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


A frightening apparition from the film's trailer.
THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958), directed by Paul Landres and scripted by Pat Fielder, was very likely the first Dracula film I ever saw. It was a staple of Channel 12's EARLY HOME THEATER, which ran Monday through Friday here in Cincinnati at 3:30pm, thus coinciding perfectly with the end of the school day at 3:10. It played so often, I must have seen it a few times before 1965 rolled around - before my first exposures to the Universal or Hammer Dracula films. Being introduced to the film under these circumstances meant that I grew up ignorant of its true historical moment and context, and that I have overlooked its deserved place in horror film history for most of my life. However, while revisiting the film courtesy of Olive Films' new Blu-ray release, much of its real value snapped into focus.

These strangers on a train exchange lives rather than murders.
It's hard to believe, but in fact THE RETURN OF DRACULA was produced and released one month before the film that stole all of its thunder, Terence Fisher's Hammer production DRACULA (US: HORROR OF DRACULA, also 1958), released by Universal-International. It's hard to believe because it contains scenes that mirror others in the as-yet-unreleased film, and because the film is so cleverly derived from two other pictures, Alfred Hitchcock's SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1953) and Robert Siodmak's Universal sequel SON OF DRACULA (1943).

Norma Eberhardt and Francis Lederer evoke memories of SHADOW OF A DOUBT.
In the story, a Transylvanian artist named Bellac Gordal (Norbert Schiller), is killed aboard a train en route to a transatlantic connection that was to take him to live in Carleton, California with his American cousin, Cora Mayberry (Greta Granstedt) and her two children. The killer (Francis Lederer), a vampire whom we take to be Dracula, impersonates Bellac as a means of eluding the authorities to America. The widowed Cora hasn't seen Bellac since they were both youngsters and this, taken together with her eagerness to have a man under her roof once again, results in the vampire being readily welcomed into her family and home. Cora's teenage daughter Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) has long fantasized about meeting this accomplished relative from Europe and is dazzled by him, being of artistic inclinations herself. (She wants to become a Parisian dress designer.) Rachel donates her free time to working for a local nursing home and spends a lot of time with a blind girl, Jennie (Virginia Vincent), whom Dracula tags as his second victim - apparently after victimizing off-screen the Mayberry family's pet cat Nugget. Somehow "Bellac" is never called upon to demonstrate his artistic prowess or to explain his daytime absences, which he spends in a dry-iced coffin in an abandoned mine. As Romanian officials dedicated to tracking the vampire narrow their pursuit to the Mayberry home, Bellac is just beginning to turn his predatory attentions to Rachel - vindicating the fears of her territorial boyfriend Tim Hansen (Ray Stricklyn). 

Francis Lederer as Cousin Bellac, the film's answer to Uncle Charlie.
THE RETURN OF DRACULA was produced and released at a time when Universal lost a measure of its control over the character, a situation which had prevented Bela Lugosi from making too specific use of his own screen persona unless he was clearly identified as other characters, as in THE MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) and THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1944). The Bram Stoker novel had entered the public domain in America in 1956, but it would not do so in the UK and Berne Convention countries until 1962 - which explains why the Landres film had to undergo an absurd change of title (to THE FANTASTIC DISAPPEARING MAN) when it was released in Great Britain and Canada. Universal continued to control film rights to the character of Dracula for years because their 1931 film adaptation was based not only on the novel but on the Hamilton Deane stage play, which had its own copyright. (They would renew those rights with their undertaking of the John Badham/Frank Langella film of 1979.) With the name of Dracula legally accessible but the character as he was popularly known unavailable, Landres' film was carefully crafted to hint at certain possibilities involving the character while sidestepping any actual intrusion into Universal's domain.

A clever trick shot - Lederer standing before a back-projected image - allows him to cast no reflection.
Despite its brazen title, Fielder's script actually tap-dances around the issue of its vampire's identity. An opening narration (surprisingly like that which would open Hammer's BRIDES OF DRACULA, a Universal release of 1960 that didn't actually feature Dracula himself) mentions that Dracula fed on human blood "thus spreading his evil dominion ever wider" and "the attempts to find and destroy this evil were never proven completely successful, and so the search continues to this very day." In the opening scene, when a group of Transylvanian agents led by John Merriman (John Wengraf) track our villain (Francis Lederer) to his presumed lair, the coffin they open is not labelled Dracula, but "Graf [Count] Nagy Istvan," whose birth and death dates go back to the 1800s. Merriman later identifies his quarry only as "one of the Undead - possibly Count Dracula himself." Even in the trailer, which includes unique footage of Lederer addressing the viewer, he refers to himself only as "the vampire." Coincidentally, THE VAMPIRE was the title of another film, a modern day science fiction/horror fusion piece that Landres and Fielder made back-to-back with this one, prompting one to wonder if it might have been the original title under which this initial feature was originally registered. But the film takes its most interesting step in separating its Dracula from any other by having Merriman assert that, though many speak of a Dracula legend, its Dracula exists in reality. This would seem to me an important step for the horror genre as a whole, to insist that its monsters are actually real - not something to entertain us, not escapism. 

An eerie evocation of the Stoker novel's Woman in White.
In retrospect, there are a few other things that no one can take away from THE RETURN OF DRACULA. First of all, Francis Lederer's performance as Dracula remains completely original in its approach to the character, if that is indeed who he is. Secondly, it is arguably the first film to present vampires in a truly modern context - even if that context happens to be set in a small town "where nothing ever happens." AIP's Count Yorga films have long had this false reputation, when in fact even Tod Browning's original DRACULA (1931) was a contemporary film in its time. However, all of Universal's horror films featuring Dracula - with the exception of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), which is arguably excusable from the discussion as a comedy - are set in a vague, costumed dress version of the present that seems just as remote to a modern sensibility as the Count's original time period. THE RETURN OF DRACULA is the first Dracula film that not only presents the undead in a world of fast cars, teenage fashions and Halloween parties. But all of these distinctions fade a bit in relation to the fact that THE RETURN OF DRACULA presents the first full color staking of a vampire in film history. In a surprising scene that, in a backwards way, has Hammer (not to mention HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS) written all over it, a group of crucifix-bearing police and churchmen follow a fugitive vampire girl back to her tomb, pray for her immortal soul, and then hammer a stake into her chest - whereupon the black-and-white film briefly bursts (like the gunshot at the climax of Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND) into blood-burbling color.

The screen's first full-color vampire staking, now preserved on Blu-ray.
THE RETURN OF DRACULA is framed in its original 1.85:1 ratio, and is in DTS-HD mono with removable English subtitles. The images are so crisp that I found myself feeling hit over the head by a couple of continuity errors I've never noticed in a lifetime of viewing. (Keep your eyes peeled on the newspaper that Lederer is reading aboard the train.) The disc is region-free. The only extra is a 2:13 theatrical trailer with Paul Frees narration and spoilers aplenty.

The film, which streets this Tuesday, October 18, is available from Olive Films on Blu-ray and DVD.

My thanks to Tom Weaver for clearing up some issues concerning the novel's public domain status and Universal's rights to the character.

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016


I can't resist a good Roger Corman anecdote, and Marty Langford's new documentary DOOMED! THE UNTOLD STORY OF ROGER CORMAN'S "FANTASTIC FOUR" is a very good, if convoluted, one. One of its most attractive qualities is that it's a comparatively new story, because the third act of Corman's career at Concorde New Horizons hasn't attracted much attention from historians and one senses there must be loads to tell. One of the most fascinating stories from this period concerns Corman's $1,000,000 production of the first live action film based on Marvel Comics' long-running title FANTASTIC FOUR (1994), directed by Oley Sassone. What's remarkable about it is not that the entire film was produced for so little (Josh Trank's 2015 adaptation tipped the scales at a reported $120,000,000 and earned less than $57,000,000 back at the box office, branding it a disaster for earning enough to finance almost 60 Corman films) but rather that the film never had a theatrical release. Some participants in this story have said that the film, unbeknownst to cast and crew, was never intended to be released but was rather rushed into production to extend and preserve producer Bernd Eichinger's screen rights to the title, which he then hoped to resell to a major studio as grist for a far more costly and lucrative production. There is talk here of 20th Century Fox wanting to acquire it for writer-director Chris Columbus, but Tim Story ultimately directed the first of two Fox pictures, released in 2005. (That said, both Eichinger and Columbus were among that film's numerous producers.)

The general consensus of comics fans has been that the three (to date) big-budgeted FF films stank, while the Corman production - which was literally shot on sound stages in a condemned building where additional walls of cardboard and quilting were put up to keep the rats out - made up for whatever it may have lacked materially in an abundance of heart. This is something that is only known because a work print of the Corman FANTASTIC FOUR somehow happened to leak out on VHS tape and began trading hands at comics conventions, where the film's stars Alex Hyde-White (Reed Richards, "Mr. Fantastic"), Jay Underwood (Johnny Storm, "The Human Torch"), Rebecca Staab (Susan Storm, "The Invisible Girl"), Michael Bailey-Smith (Ben Grimm, "The Thing") - and Joseph Culp as their adversary Doctor Doom - had made promotional appearances above and beyond the call of duty to enthuse fans about the project they all believed to be forthcoming. The special effects on the print don't appear to be finished, and neither was the post-sync looping of some muddy dialogue, but what matters most is that - after another three tries costing upwards of $300,000,000 in production costs - this scruffy bastard son version (scripted by Craig J. Nevius and Kevin Rock) remains the most faithful adaptation of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic to date.
Doctor Doom taunts the Fantastic Four.
Langford's documentary sits down with all of the film's principal cast members, its director and writer and editor, as well as Corman, employees of his company, MARVEL THE UNTOLD STORY author Sean Howe and journalist Chris Gore, who was present on the set every day of its rushed Christmas season production as a representative of FILM THREAT magazine. What is uncovered is another valuable volume of Corman lore, vaguely akin to the multi-tiered story of how he turned the Yugoslavian thriller OPERATION TITIAN into the working capital of four mostly unrelated movies, including Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman's BLOOD BATH; the film's greatest value doesn't have as much to do with Marvel Comics as the fascinating financial and legal reasons why films sometimes get made. As one interviewee notes, everyone involved in this project "above a certain line" made a lot of money on this unfinished picture, while everyone who gave their blood, sweat and tears to it suffered great disappointment and personal expense. Every cast member recalls having to buy a $10 bootleg tape to see their film for the first time, but in the same breath, they also thank God that the film was bootlegged so that their hard work can be seen and shared with their grandchildren. Look close enough and you'll discern a timely parallel between this story and Donald Trump's Presidential debate sound bytes about why disappointing or withholding their due from employees is "good business." (I don't intend here to liken Corman to Trump; he did profit from his participation, as was always assured, but he also saw that everyone on the production was paid. It was not his decision to withhold the film from release, and I think it says a good deal about his honest intentions that he cheerfully participated in this documentary, even though it doesn't always present him in the most flattering light.)

While the various component parts of DOOMED! are engrossing, their assembly (Langford also edited) is not as well organized as it might have been. The film launches into its discussion of the film without the sort of basic introductory details that might help to involve viewers who are approaching the film without prior knowledge or interest. The clips used from the film are shown without any discussion of its storyline; I don't recall any mention at all that the group acquired their super powers as a result of a test rocket flight that bombarded them with gamma rays - basically the same set-up as Hammer's THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1957, aka THE CREEPING UNKNOWN). It is mentioned that the Mole Man was originally considered as part of the story, but due to conflicting rights, he was replaced with a new character, The Jeweler (Ian Trigger). Thus, despite many points of historical and gossipy interest and amusement, the film becomes a conflation of not always clear references to a movie most people haven't seen, illustrated with murky clips, and extended guesswork concerning the behind-the-scenes factors that brought it down. 
Director Marty Langford with Roger Corman.
Despite this, an irresistible human element keeps DOOMED! consistently enjoyable. Whether it's Alex Hyde-White recalling the "fuck" he uttered when he learned about the film's non-release, Rebecca Staab defending the film's silly costumes because they were supposedly hand-made by Sue Storm, Joseph Culp stepping us through his process of "becoming" Doctor Doom, or Michael Bailey-Smith's heartbreak at seeing a video of Stan Lee dissing the film at a convention appearance after being such a mensch while visiting the set, the film conveys how very much a career in the film business means to so many people - many of whom never get much more than a kick in the teeth for all their devotion - and how important dreams are in a world filled with hard knocks. Several of the interviewees continue to hold out hopes that their film's negative hasn't really been destroyed, as Eichinger once claimed in an interview, and make earnest pitches about how a properly completed version (or even a before-and-after version) would be an assured money-maker. Perhaps the interest aroused by DOOMED! will be the ammunition this worthy idea needs.

DOOMED! THE UNTOLD STORY OF ROGER CORMAN'S "FANTASTIC FOUR" is now in limited theatrical release and debuts on View On Demand outlets today, with DVD and Blu-ray release following on December 12.

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Eleven Years A Blogger

It's that time again, time to count another milestone in the millstone (I use the word affectionately) that is my blogging. Old habits die hard, and this one is getting older by the annum. This posting will be brief, simply to assure you that another issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG is indeed nearing completion, and that it's my intention to continue using this blog - as time and energy permits - to share my most essential thoughts on recent releases. Because the publication of the magazine has become more irregular, I'm also going to go ahead and start posting here some reviews written for print that aren't getting any younger and would be unseemly to present as new by this point in time.

I also want to share here the news of a recent extra curricular activity of mine. In addition to audio commentaries for Kino Lorber here in the States, Arrow Video in the UK, and Koch Media in Germany, I'm nearly finished with a first draft of a novel based on the MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES screenplay I co-wrote with Charlie Largent. It's a comedy based on the sequence of events leading Roger Corman to make his classic 1967 film THE TRIP, scripted by Jack Nicholson and starring Peter Fonda. Joe Dante has optioned our script, and we're hopeful the film gets made - next week's public table reading at the Vista Theater in Los Angeles, with Bill Hader reading the part of Roger Corman, may help in this regard - but we all felt that the story we had to tell was too good to keep to ourselves. The requirements of a novel are somewhat different than those of a script, and this has allowed me to make use of some of the fun stuff that our screenplay has lost over time as a result of rewrites. So it should make very interesting and entertaining reading not only apart from the film Joe hopes to make, but as an actual annex to it. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of THE TRIP, and it would be wonderful if it also saw the long-awaited production and release of THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES. 

Friday, October 07, 2016


In case you haven't already heard, there's some big doings coming up fast where THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES is concerned. This coming Wednesday, October 12, Joe Dante will be directing a live table reading of this as-yet-unproduced screenplay - which I co-authored with Charlie Largent and additional input from Michael Almereyda and James Robison - at the Vista Theatre in Los Angeles, as part of Cinefamily and SpectreVision's "The Greatest Films Never Made" program at SpectreFest.

All I know about the table reading is that Bill Hader will be reading the part of Roger Corman (great casting!) and Jason Ritter will be reading the role of Peter Fonda (also great); beyond that, all I know is that "surprise guests" are promised. My mind frankly boggles at who might turn up to read the parts of Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper and Charles B. Griffith! Well, there is one more thing I know... Roger Corman himself will also be there (presumably with his wife and partner Julie Corman), not only to attend but to place his handprints in cement outside the theater as part of this Tribute to his legendary career!

For those who don't know, THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES is a comic (but, for the most part, historically accurate) dramatization of the events leading up to, and following, Corman's filming of Jack Nicholson's original screenplay THE TRIP back in the second half of 1966. It documents how (in a very Preston Sturges kind of way) "the squarest guy in a very hip crowd" had the responsibility of becoming one of the leading 1960s drug movement spokespersons thrust upon him, and - on a more serious level - the challenges that artists must sometimes meet to gain the next rung on their creative ladder.

This is going to be great - and since there is still no confirmation of Joe's proposed film going into production, it's your only chance on the horizon to experience this remarkable story being brought to life by name actors! And in the actual presence of the story's real life protagonist!

Tickets are going for $20 and $45 for VIP admission. VIP admission includes preferential seating and a free copy of the poster designed for the event by graphic novel icon Jaime Hernandez (pictured).

Get your tickets here!  

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Review: Vinegar Syndrome's COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE

Where does one begin with COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE? How does one begin to explain to the uninitiated its bizarre, even unique appeal? Moreso than any other Paul Naschy film, this - his sole interpretation of the Lord of the Un-Dead - seems to have been dredged up whole from his unconscious by director Javier Aguirre. The narrative scenes are terse and choppy, the horror scenes are more static, lurid and indulgent. The costuming belongs to a different place and era, the staid collides with the explicit, and the score seldom varies from the same repeated cue, bonding all the various imagery to a common dream. 

It's a dream that begins when a pair of workers deliver a crate to an abandoned sanatorium, whose cellar they discover occupied by various coffins. Talking in voices that sound provided by Mel Blanc and Slim Pickens, they decide to loot the coffins for some of those jewels that the wealthy dead are known to take to their graves with them. A shadowy figure appears and attacks one of the men. The other races up a flight of stone steps into the falling blade of a hatchet (we never learn who wields it), then tumbles back down the stairs as Carmelo Bernaola's impressionist score kicks in for the first time - spectral, plucking, plinking sounds with shuddery, shimmering emanations from an electric organ. The possibilities within this dream are forecast by the backdrop to the main titles, as the tumbling graverobber rolls below frame only to reappear at the top the the stairs to roll down them once again, and this happens over and over again, his plummet slowed with each entropic repetition to a point approaching Zapruder-like, frame-stepped scrutiny until his final disappearance below the director's credit. In short, the film takes us from the familiar to the ludicrous, from the chilling and beautiful to the uncanny almost before we've had time to draw breath.  

What follows is like the fever dream of a brain permeated by cinema. A coach transporting Imre Foley (Vic Winner) and four women (Rosanna Yanni as "Senta," Marta Miller as "Elke," Ingrid Garbo as "Marlene," and Haydee Politoff -  the star of Eric Rohmer's La Collectioneuse - as "Karen") from Biarritz to Transylvania loses a wheel, and its coachman, not far from the former Castle Dracula, which - according to Imre - subsequently became the sanatorium of a Dr. Kargos (note: cute mash-up of "Karloff" and "Lugosi") who was hung by villagers for conducting cruel and unusual experiments. (Now there's a movie still waiting to be made!) The sanatorium was recently acquired by a Dr. Wendell Marlowe (Naschy), who keeps it available for spontaneous hospitality, because he - evidently like Kargos before him - is in fact Count Dracula, patiently awaiting the fated arrival of a virgin who will love him enough to freely offer her blood for the resurrection of his daughter Rodna, Countess Dracula, and join them in their lifestyle as immortal and damned to an eternal thirst.

The only word for this film - now available in a glorious new Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome - is "delirious." It's a word that also applies to Naschy/Aguirre's other collaboration, the surprisingly Lovecraftian THE HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE (1973), with which it was shot back-to-back. Both films were penned by Naschy under his real name, Jacinto Molina, and throw the genre an unusual curve by daring to tell love stories in the context of the most appalling horror.

In the audio commentary accompanying this new release, both director and star claim to have achieved something new by doing so, and speculate that Francis Ford Coppola's BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA must have worked from their obscure original model. However, "strange love" has been part of the genre going back to a moment in Stoker's original novel when the Count's notice of a keepsake photo of Jonathan Harker's fiancée Lucy suddenly certifies his interest in taking his plans for conquest westward. Terence Fisher incorporated this scene in his widely-seen classic DRACULA (US: HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958), but it was possibly John L. Balderston - who wrote the scripts for Universal's DRACULA (1931) and FRANKENSTEIN (1931) - who first introduced the genre to the idea of a love that conquers time in THE MUMMY (1932), though the idea itself may have come from that film's story writers, Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Shayer. When Italy got involved in the gothic horror revival with Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's I vampiri in 1957, its story took a leaf from THE MUMMY by having its vampiress (Gianna Maria Canale) motivated by her infatuation with the twin descendant of a long-dead love. The film conveyed this idea with the use of an ancestral portrait, a storytelling conceit that also figured prominently in Bava's official directorial debut, La maschera del demonio (US: BLACK SUNDAY, 1960), itself an unusually floridly romantic horror picture - an attempt to deliver something that might please Italian audiences who were not normally receptive to horror. According to his own autobiography, Naschy took his wife to see La maschera del demonio on their honeymoon.

None of these facts disqualify Naschy and Aguirre's claim to having achieved something original with their film. What COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE gives us for the first time is a Dracula who is not only self-conscious and emotionally vulnerable but binary in character. ("Dr. Marlowe" was possibly Naschy's nod to the Dr. Jekyll surrogate played by Christopher Lee in the Amicus film I, MONSTER, made in 1970.) At the end of the picture, the iconic DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1967) imagery of Dracula pulling an unsanctified stake from his chest is inverted as Dracula impales himself through the heart with a stake, the avatar of Evil actually sacrificing itself on an altar of Love. These are all new, and I daresay still unique, aspects of the film.   

The film is a actually quite a catalogue of horror film quotations, beginning with its opening scene with the two delivery men. When they refer in conversation to someone named Barton (like Charles Barton, the director of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN), we suddenly realize they are basically Chick and Wilbur, the delivery men played by the comedy team in that 1948 classic. The idea of robbing the graves of the aristocracy for their jewels originated in Universal's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) and was previously tapped by Naschy in his horror film debut, La Marca del Hombre Lobo [US: FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR, 1968]. Then there's the coach ride through the Borgo Pass as the various passengers (one man, three beautiful women) casually exchange data about the historic Count Dracula, though the time frame of the story (or is it just the wardrobe inherited from other period pictures?) appears to pre-date the novel. Viewers well attuned to horror film history - and to be watching something this obscure, you'd have to be - will readily recognize instances cribbed from THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957 - the old man victimized in the woods), BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960 - the two vampire women in the barn), DRACULA - PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965 - the resurrection of Rodna by slashing the throat of a woman suspended above her coffin) and SCARS OF DRACULA (1971 - Dracula's sadistic flogging of the farm girl), particularly. Naschy's physical appearance as Dracula appears to be closely modeled on the latter. The former weightlifting champion was often been criticized for being too stocky to play the character, but he actually looks trimmer here than in other pictures. There is even a sequence printed in color negative, which Aguirre - on the commentary track - confirms as an homage to F.W. Murnau's NOSFERATU (1922).

At the same time, Aguirre turns up the heat considerably, bolting far past what Hammer Films was doing at the same time with their most liberated vampire films, in terms of what he is willing to show in regard to violence, sadism and particularly eroticism. Naschy's films typically exhibit a macho sensibility and a strong libido, the latter here expressed in terms of lots of bare flesh and richly flowing blood. No one bothers to keep them separated, which is where the delirium kicks in. COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE is a period picture, likely set in the mid- to late 19th century, but its eroticism extends even beyond the norm of its own time - and this is one of the areas where Spanish horror cinema distinguished itself. At the same time, the macho posturing traditional to Spanish horror is curiously absent, as Wendell is portrayed as gentleness itself, the kind of man who  frees rabbits from traps and openly reproaches himself for being seduced by a woman he does not love. It's useful to remember that the people who made these films lived and worked under an oppressive government, and they embraced the liberating traditions of the genre as a revolutionary act. One of this film's revolutionary acts is portraying its central male as vulnerable and its female characters as sexually emancipated and, in effect, all-decisive in matters of life and death.

Adding to the film's special allure is the fact that it was impossible to see uncut or in its original language for many years. It played only briefly under a foreshortened release title (DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE) before, in a subsequent release, it was forced to maraud under the more exploitative title CEMETERY TRAMPS, ensuring that anyone who made its acquaintance theatrically did so by accident. Like many who hold the film dear, I discovered it on local commercial television, where the peculiar spell it weaves was made still more enticing by frequent censorship cuts. In the mid-1980s, I thought I'd finally found my chance to see it uncut when I found a copy on the shelves at my local video store; however, that VHS copy from Ivers Film Services turned out to be a Canadian bootleg of a heavily censored UK release. The film subsequently resurfaced on DVD as an "Elvira's Movie Macabre" release - much too dark, pictorially cropped, and punctuated with Elvira's comic hostess sketches. Prior to this new high-definition release, an uncut copy finally became available on DVD, branded once again as CEMETERY TRAMPS and placed as half of a BCI "Exploitation Cinema Double Bill" DVD with Cirio H. Santiago's VAMPIRE HOOKERS - but it was assembled from more than one print, resulting in patchwork color timing and lighting.

Therefore, Vinegar Syndrome's loving 2K restoration of the film on Blu-ray undoes a curse that the film has had to endure literally for decades. Watching COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE on the Vinegar Syndrome disc is like seeing it for the first time, thanks to its great revelations of bold colors and scenic depth. But it also makes that compliment quite literal, as it includes for the first time the option of viewing the film with its original Spanish soundtrack (it's taken from a rough secondary source element and sounds a bit harsh, but acceptable) with an option of English "dubtitles" (the dialogue as spoken on the English track) or a proper translation of the original Spanish dialogue. 
Even people who love the film (and I count myself among them) will tell you that the English version contains some of the most preposterous dubbed dialogue you're ever likely to hear:

"You haven't changed since college," Elke taunts Senta for being attracted to Dr. Wendell Marlowe. "The only thing you can think of is men. You'd sleep with a broom if it had pants!"

Praised for his scientific acumen, Wendell casually replies, "The true man of science rarely confirms anything; I would say he doubts everything." 

After a romantic moonlight stroll with Wendell, Karen confesses "These have been the most terrible and happiest days of my life!"

And - my favorite - as he prepares to revive his skeletonized daughter Rodna, Dracula addresses Karen by saying "You once belonged to Dracula and now you've returned to his side for the ceremony that signifies the rebirth of his origin."

Though the film is set in the wilds of Transylvania, its working class characters are dubbed like hillbillies and cowboy movie varmints. Whenever Dracula himself speaks, usually in a dull and disembodied voice, his tones are drenched in reverb à la Zandor Vorkov in Al Adamson's DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971) - and when his vampire brides leap from ground level to the awning of a farmhouse, someone thought it would add to the moment to add the sound effect of a pennywhistle. (To my amazement, it's in the Spanish version too, so we can't hold the English dubbers responsible for all its silliness.) However, when all is said and done, some viewers may feel that the quirky English dubbing is part and parcel of the film's peculiar charm, its against-the-grain zaniness adding to its Surrealist qualities. While watching the film in Spanish for the first time, I found that, while it became more coherent in its original design and intentions, it also forfeited a certain quality that has always been central to the pleasure I've taken from it. Nevertheless, the provision of the Spanish track and two different sets of English subtitles ranks high on any list of bonus content in this year's crop of horror films on disc.

The supplements include the aforementioned commentary by Naschy and Aguirre, moderated by Angel Gomez Rivero - obviously recorded some time ago, but accompanied with English subtitles. The subtitles are not very smoothly translated and have a forcedly academic character; nevertheless, Naschy and Aguirre offer some interesting stories about the filming, including a couple of occasions of "occupational hazards" when the actresses nearly died - once in an automobile accident, and again in response to a toxic reaction to the smoke being used in a disintegration scene. There is also a recent 9-minute interview with actress Mirta Miller, conducted by Elena Anele, that finds its subject in a guarded mood and offering only general, vague answers to questions - so it's not too surprising when the filmmakers describe her as difficult and unfriendly in their commentary. The packaging is reversible and includes an 8-page essay booklet by Mirek Lipinski, who includes some fascinating production information as well as Naschy's own recollections of a suppressed sequel that was apparently made - La hija del Conde Dracula vulve ("The Daughter of Dracula Returns"). A DVD pressing of the entire contents is also included.

Order your copy here.

Addendum from reader Tim Tucker: 
"A footnote: the 'strange love' trope goes back at least to H. Rider Haggard's SHE (1887), which shows Ayesha in love with Leo Vincey, who is the reincarnation of her ancient lover, Kallikrates."

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Things You Learn Online!

I never knew this until a few minutes ago, but this hapless cast member of Joseph Green's THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1959, released 1962) - billed as Leslie Daniels - was in fact actor Anthony La Penna, working incognito on a non-union project. If the name Anthony La Penna doesn't ring a bell with you, his voice probably would.

La Penna narrated Doris Wishman's PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL, Jacopetti/Prosperi's GOODBYE UNCLE TOM and Dario Argento's INFERNO, to name a few of the times he "hosted" our investigations into the dark side; he also voiced a doctor character in MOTHRA, but his voice can be heard on Italian imported horror as far back as CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER in 1959. The Internet Movie Database has assembled an interesting but obviously incomplete list of his credits. His rich voice - very similar to that of former SHADOW radio actor Bret Morrison (for whom I used to mistake him) - is especially familiar to me from its use in Italian sword and sandal films, not even one of these is noted by the IMDb.