Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Taste the Blood of Dracula's Prime: 12 Psychotronic Vampire films now streaming the Amazon

Weird times, man. I've been laying low surfing around Amazon Prime like a deranged 'American Picker' of psychotronic oddities to collect and lay at your feet like so many dead mice. It's become even wilder and weirder out there then ever- all sorts of groovy stuff can be found under the plainest of rocks, while classics are unwatchable thanks to terrible transfer/uploads. Llike with psychedelics or that 'other' Amazon, the one in South America's swingin' rain forest, you need the right guide.

I'm that guide, man.  Quick! Turn left!

As I've written (in my 5 Films on Amazon Prime for a new TrumpMerica), there's a strong need to be picky in here, lest your aesthetic sensibilities be dampened, so stay close.

PS - I'm not shilling for Prime or actually giving you a password. But especially as Netflix only seems to care about their original material these days and Hulu has terrible organizational skills, for the weirdness hunters amongst thee, Prime is, dare I say it, the new Kim's Video. 

All Images below are Screenshots from Prime Itself to give you quality assurance.

(1969) Dir. Al Adamson (USA)
** 1/2 (Image quality - B-)

Somewhere between the hick carny hustle of Steckler, the macabre jouissance of Wood, the amateur competence of Mikels, and the laissez faire shrug of William Beaudine, Al Adamson crouches and waits for the right rube to stumble past, then pounces. More often than not AA's films have been terribly preserved and framed and shot. Even when the transer looks good, like someone tried to correct the color and sharpen it up, it still seems like you're watching a home movie by a kid stealing shots from a far off film set, from around a corner. His cinematography is usually flat, but sometimes it gets accidentally moody, like when he does day-for-night shots at twilight, or he lucks out hiring a refugee like László Kovács. His sound mixing seems done by a deaf person and his actors do a lot of squinting past the camera, as if for a long lost cue card. And yet... sometimes I'd swear there's something magical about the cumulative effect. If you're in the right mood for accidental Brecht totemism--i.e, if you're delirious with fever or lack of sleep--and loved seeing all the Universal horrors on local TV Saturday afternoons as a small child, mixing them in your mind with the lurid R-rated devil movie local drive-in TV spots and Addams Family reruns--you just might tolerate Blood of Dracula's Castle.

Alexander D'Arcy (the 'music teacher' who identified Cary Grant's continental mind in The Awful Truth) is great here as the aristocratic vampire who tries to figure out how best to dispose of a Squaresville USA couple who've just inherited 'his' squatter's rights castle. Naturally it will save him from having to move out if he can, shall we say, 'have' them for cocktails? With the impressively bouffanted Paula Raymond as his loyal Bathory-ish wife, and John Carradine as, for some reason, the butler. Robert Dix (Richard Dix's son!) is an escaped (werewolf) lunatic relative. He's terrifyingly American, like he just murdered his way out of a George Axelrod movie. There's a "big" sacrifice to Saturn or some (day-for) night goddess out on the dunes, or something, at the climax. It's a mess, yet whatever piece you slice off it, there's a refreshingly dark and amoral aura here, like The Addams Family if they actually chained up women in the basement to torture and drain of blood, laughing all the way and expecting us to do the same. If it wasn't made in 1969 I'd swear it was ahead of it's time for 1964. Best of all, though the quality of the Amazon print is not strained, Kovács did the photography, which may explain why it falls down like the gentle rain of heaven, even if it bears Adamson's paw smudges all over the splices.

(1960) Dir. Renato Polselli 
*** (Image quality: B+)
(In Italian w/ English subtitles)

Luisa (Hélène Rémy), the gorgeous platinum blond heroine in this atmospheric Italian horror film looks a lot like a less conventionally svelte Eva Marie Saint or Bibi Andersson --reason enough in and of itself for me to love this film, but there's also a whole busload of showgirls breaking down near an old creepy castle, a plot that wasn't old hat when this came out (1960), and for all its romantic subplot cliches, it's exciting to watch the ladies deal with supernatural incursions by doing improv vampire dance routines, and to dig the naturalistic way the plot coheres around seemingly random exchanges. Especially compelling is the natural rapport between Luisa and her equally platinum-blonde Nordic-ish hotel roommate Francesca (Tina Gloriani), conjuring weird parallels with Persona (which it precedes), especially after Francesca gets seduced by the vampires and tries to lure Luisa into the fold via weird quasi-lesbian bed sharing and head games. Noice!

As with Rome's still-alive neo-realist 'found value' approach to its countrys post-war ruins, fine atmosphere is hewn from the living rock of a bombed-out castle and its winding catacombs, so once sealed crypts are accessible by Third Man-style stumbles down piles of rocky rubble, and the transfer on Prime has got that pencil sketch black and white photographic richness that illuminates every crack.

Another cool aspect is the co-ed nature of the vampire clan: seducing duties are divided between the mysterious Countess Alda (Maria Luisa Rolando) and her bullying /subservient male consort (she acts all endangered by his macho control freak act, but it's more fluidly sadomasochistic than that). His face dissolves into a horror mask with ping pong eyeballs if he gets too  thirsty, but then he becomes younger and 'handsome' after drinking blood, and that's when his power dynamic with the countess shifts! It's an unusually smart touch that taps into the insecure amped-up vanity at the dark mama's boy heart of Italian manhood (his savagery will get you to stop laughing at them ridiculous eyeballs) . In prime pimp style, he drinks from his ladies once they've drunk from the men--cuz he's not gay or anything, and if his lovely young victims come back to life he stakes them, shouting "I'm master of my domain!" before kicking the coffins shut, the ultimate in macho tantrum. The Italian language being spoken over subtitles helps it all seem 'arty' and the score delivers both theremin-goosed passages for slinky vamp moments and terrible muzak-style filler whenever composer Al Piga can't discern the emotional tenor of a particular scene, which is often (oh oh, what Ennio might have done!) Either way, it's a classic Italy, back in the day when they were just beginning to dabble in horror, thanks to relaxing censorship, so the cliches are still wet, glistening in the moon, like blood, Luisa! The monster will strike again!

(1966) Dir. Curtis Harrington 
*** (image quality: A-)

A tale of first contact with Mars, a world peace unified space exploration future is led by Basil Rathbone. They'll be escorting a female vampire alien ambassador from a Martian moon to Earth after her ship crash lands. Ready the launch! It's a case of reverse engineering as Corman protege Curtis Harrington intercuts footage from the cheaply licensed Soviet bloc sci-fi film MESTRE NASTRESHU with new footage starring Dennis Hopper, John Saxon and Basil Rathbone (among others. The combination works perfectly - allowing for a high level of special effects quality and, for devotees, a chance to marvel at the ingenuity Harrington used in matching the footage. The end result is not only aptmospheric and strangely sexy, it's coherent, and looks way more expensive than it was.
Best of all, you can now see it in blazing restored colors. (it used to be available only in faded ugly pan and scan TV prints/transfers). Now it glows much like its compatriot in ALIEN-inspiring, 1965's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (see: Growing up Alien). 

Acting as a fine mirror to issues of gender as well as Soviet-American relations of the era, the footage is matched brilliantly to its respective sides: the Dionysian and ornate deep red Russian footage for the female vampire Martian ship and the "Red" planet surfaces / the Harrington-shot Earth scenes and space ship interiors a nice powder blues  with cafeteria grays on threadbare Apollonian sets. John Saxon and Dennis Hopper are amongst the astronauts. Basil Rathbone stays on the ground by the monitors. Judi Meredith wears enough make-up for a dozen Soviet department stores but looks great in the ship dial reflections. Together it's like an unholy union written in the stars and read by lovers holding hands across the Berlin wall. Then, when the Red ambassador gets taken aboard the American craft, the hypnosis starts. The blood drinking and the orders from on high not to harm the specimen, no matter how many human astronauts perish like so many sailors on Dracula's London-bound schooner, all herald similar threads in the ALIEN to come  This time however, everyone but John Saxon agrees: save the queen! She has diplomatic immunity, so even if everyone else is bitten it's worth it. But one thing; if she wants to drink Dennis Hopper's blood better warn her first: the Thorazine is long gone!

(1964) Dir. Ákos Ráthonyi
**1/2 (image quality: B-)
Dubbed in English

Eurosleaze mainstay Adrian Hoven is a possible vampire aristocrat squaring off with a tourist detective over a hottie blonde (Erika Remberg) in this cool black and white German variation on the mid-60s neorealist Eurosleaze horror film. The real stars are the cobblestones, Remberg's lingerie, the crazy tunnels and some nice expressionistic shadows, including a weird silhouette of jazz hands at the window of prospective victims. Not quite as lurid as a Franco film or as procedural as a German krimi, it manages to have one foot in the aftershave-and-sideburns tackiness of its Eastern European swinger moment and another in the timeless Gothic past. As for the story, the vampire aspects are cleverly folded into a class resentment study and there are hints of the dream poeticism we find in later Czech films like Valerie and her Week of Wonders. The print/transfer on Amazon is okay, could be worse, kind of sepia-tinged, but whatever. Find the old Image DVD which has enough of a better upgrade to make it worth it, if you're the type for whom these things matter. All in all, while it's not quite as robust as Vampire and the Ballerina, but maybe sexy Remberg makes up the difference for any lack of leading man charisma or narrative drive.

(1971) Dir. Jean Rollin
**1/2 (image quality - A)
in French with English subtitles 

Marie-Pierre Castel, Mireille Dargent are a pair of cute young outlaw clown girls on the lam who wind up trapped within the spacious grounds of crumbling vampire chateau in this Jean Rollin classic. Mostly in exterior shots, we see winding stone stairs, mausoleum, graveyard, castle, and hilly grounds, and once entered there is no escape --all paths wind back to the chateau in prime dream logic 'no escape' style.  Like all Rollin films it's a kind of Ghost World for the Bataille set, but with vampirism taking the place of adult responsibility as the wedge that forms between the two plucky virgin heroines. In a rare moment of clarity, Rollin spells it all out when the head vampire orders the girls to use the promise of sex to lure men to their death at the castle, but to keep their virginity intact. One of the girls dutifully follows this instruction but the other falls in love with her quarry, losing her virginity to him, which she intentionally invites to save herself from vamp initiation (what a poseur!). She even endures a flogging by her once-bosom pal to get her to spill his hiding place (only to have him shove her out of the way and run off later like a prize douche!). 

Prime used to have dozens of examples (though he really only ever made the same film, over and over) of Jean Rollin's lyrical dream-like vampire nymph art school neurotica but--as befits its title and somber resolution--this is the only one left. (Not counting Zombie Lake but why would you?). The quality is lovely if not quite magnificent, and should allow for some pleasant half-napping --the ideal state to watch a Rollin film (and their slow pace makes such a state all but inevitable). Stretches do seem to run by where you can feel Rollin not sure what to do next, so he just captures the rippling wind in the grass. For example: the girls' midnight initiation ceremony involves one if the girls sitting next to the main vamp lady as she plays a minimalist tune on the outdoor piano... for ten minutes... while the other goes into a red-lit mausoleum (visible behind the piano) and then comes out.  It all ends in one of those "party's over" speeches that seems to denote an auteur ready to declare the full breadth of his obsession exhausted. It's a bit of an anticlimax: exhaustion is already so close to his subject matter one wonders if he's kidding himself.

Why it's still great is that--even whilst drenched in sex and lurid violence-- there's not an objectifying or misogynist bone in its body. As Acidemic contributor Ethan Spigland writes:
"Despite the gratuitous nudity and requisite sex associated with the genre (and often demanded by producers), Rollins films never come across as misogynistic. In Requiem for a Vampire, the men tend to be either brutish, foolishly gullible, or impotent. The last vampire accepts his fate with quiet dignity, but possesses no sexual magnetism. His female vampires, by contrast, convey an erotic power. Though women are associated with the chthonic, we never sense the fear of the castrating phallic mother that one encounters in such films as Lars Von Triers Antichrist . Rollin seems to be in thrall to their ecstatic jouissance. " (more)
(1973) Dir. Jess Franco
**1/2 (image: B-)
In French with English subtitles

The period of 1971-1973 was the peak for vampire lesbian movies coming out of Europe (thanks largely to the boffo 1970 box office of Hammer's Vampire Lovers which was among the first to seize the advantage of relaxed censorship). 1971 alone had about 42 versions, all with the surname of the lead vamp character Karnstein (ala Le Fanu's "Camilla") or Bathory (the real-life historical murderess). This one, bad as it is, is a Jess Franco masterpiece that can be found slithering under a wide array of international titles and ratings: The Bare-Breasted Countess, Erotikill, and Loves of Irina are all tailored to the needs of each country's censors and distributors. In some places, lurid gushing violence was cut and pornographic close-ups inserted; in other places vice versa; in this version--not in HD but still looking pretty spiffy--there's neither. Yet, the magic surprising prevails. Even in this toned-down version, the movie's still 100 minutes and has plenty of innocuous (and occasionally tedious) softcore gyrating. Titillating it ain't, of course, but it is rather hypnotic in a second chakra-vibrating miasma kind of way. Mostly, there's a lot of great weird Franco framing, odd touches, and misty morning standing around with Lina Romay (who's excellent and mute and usually naked) as the last countess in the Karnstein lineage. She's living in self-imposed exile on the strange island of Madeira (which is gorgeous, nearly Nordic in its willowy hills) where she's slowly decimating the population of libertines of either gender (she kills by biting the enflamed sexual orifices of her victims and feeding on their hormonal 'ahem' essence). Walking around in the early morning mist, clad only in her Vampirella-inspired costume, she's quite a vision.

Meanwhile--as a doomed poet, ever at his writing machine, pining for death and in love with Irina, before they even meet--Jack Taylor (Franco's regular, steely-eyed romantic lead) has one of his finest hours. Baudelaire himself seems to rise from the crypt and approve of his debauched artistic yearning. If you're sick and artistic yourself, you may fall as in love with the whispering wind and trees and glowing white sky of Madeira's mountains as he is. And you become in love with them both. Their weird romantic chemistry manages to be eloquently conveyed with barely a word, just lots of embracing and then running from each other, then pausing, paralyzed, and drifting back. Too saddened by their long-standing proximity to the void to not be agonizingly aware of the inevitable damage their love will bring upon themselves. They don't want to be together for the very reason that being together will prevent them from being together. How you manage to get all that without a single spoken word is a kind of misty twilight miracle. Taylor's piercing blue eyes seem legitimately haunted over that conundrum. He's a long way from the flatline masculine puffery he offered a few years earlier in Franco films like Succubus. If you're familiar with the all-consuming existential dread that alcoholism or drug addiction brings as the layers between you and the harrowing void begin to dissolve one by one, then you know what they're going through. You know what I mean. Having a full bottle or stash and being high as hell is a kind of sublime immortality, but the agonies of withdrawal are always right outside the door, growing angrier the longer you leave them knocking. Am I reading too much into it because I only ever watch this film when I'm sick and strung out on cough syrup? Maybe, but I'm glad they make such a potent combination.

Change the name to 'Kuersten' and she could be talking about me!

Still - if you're only a casual viewer of the 60s-70s Eurosleaze genre it can be hard to understand why anyone would give Jess Franco a red cent to make his godawful films, or waste a minute of time to see them. It took me seven tries to get even fifteen minutes into Female Vampire back in '00 when I covered the Franco oeuvre for a certain canonical search engine (now extinct). Even having seen and liked some other Franco stuff (mainly Succubus, and Diabolical Dr. Z), this one struck me as an inept student art film. But then, a decade or so later, the magic took ahold of me like a pair of velvet claws soggy scuttling below vaginal seas. I 'got' it... and it was glorious.

Maybe the key to understanding Franco's style is to inverse Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, i.e. Franco's films are an adventure, not of mind, but of sight and sound. If you've ever been having great sex and kind of go into a trance, where time seems to slow and stop around you and everything becomes profound as time and space are melting like a Dali watch, or a hole is burning into the celluloid of your life, then you will recognize the same effect with Franco's best films. You have to meet them halfway though, which is why they're much better on lots of drugs, or when you're half-asleep.

A lot of this kind of hard-to-peg existential ennui, which is so European vs. the rest of the world is perhas bred from language barriers in everyday life that globe-trotting filmmakers encounter. When the alienated/existential dissonance associated by daily Babel Tower struggle is taken as part of reality's fabric, the films of Antonioni, Rollin, and Franco start to finally make sense to American monolingual homebody eyes and ears. In our modern blockbuster era it can be hard to imagine the appeal of such messed up compromises, but remember that this was the era before hardcore pornography was street legal. These kinds of films were risque but still respectable. Sure, Female Vampire is an incoherent jazzy mess, but so is seduction, sex, love - no matter how airbrushed Maxim wants to make it. This is sex with a bush, baby. Franco isn't trying to woo you into some kind of Mulveyan eye sadistic gaze possession but to devour you from the outside-in via a vagina dentata clockwork zipper.

As far as music, though he's not Ennio Morricone, frequent Franco accompanist Daniel White proves--as always--Franco's most essential collaborator. This time he lathers on the swirly cacophony, the silken lounge lizard eyes-across-the-casino seduction, the breathy swooning hotel room breathing, and under it all there's a diegetic layer of constantly chattering birds, bats, peacocks, god knows what other animal noises. 

It's hypnotic once you listen deeply (and what else is there to do?); we're used to straining that shit out of our daily sensory input so when the animal calls suddenly stop we're left to wonder if its intentional, if Franco's foley guy just got bored and forgot to rewind the tape, or they ran out of noises or money. If you're nodding off in your easy chair, the blood beyond your eyes drained from either arousal or too many Turkish cigarettes, then you can nod off and be almost asleep when a peacock call sounds suspiciously like a human scream. By the time you wake up the noise is gone -- did it happen?

In that sense, Female Vampire isn't a movie at all really, but an X-rated writhing melancholy jazz riff on a movie, the way Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" isn't really a 'cover' of the basic melodic song. Instead of a movie, Franco gives us a be-bopping ghostly counterpoint echo/antecedent to a movie, a kind of negative space reverse-fill. This is a movie where a flying vampire bat is not a flapping piece of rubber on a string (as it would be for Universal) but a bat-shaped hood ornament on a car speeding down the Madeira by-way. Each isn't a real bat, so who cares what makes the wings flap? If you can dig that, you're finally ready to watch the works of Paine Dreying.  (2022 ed note: I've seen it since, sober, and been bored and irritated especially the nonstop jazz rendition of some vaguely familiar holiday parade-jingle sounding melody I can't remember the name of. Was I even seeing the same version? With Franco you can never tell. )

(1991) In Cantonese w/ English subtitles
*** / Image - B+

What better way to follow two slow-moving, super artsy 70s Eurosleaze vamp pics than with this boisterous fast moving (albeit flatly-shot) Hong Kong horror comedy from 1991? The action follows a virgin medical intern as his car breaks down on a remote highway; he stops at "the Count's" mansion to use the phone, but winds up in the midst of a ritzy vampire happening already in progress. Instead of the tow truck he winds up losing his virginity (in both senses) to a cute young neophyte vampire (a scene that manages to be erotic, scary and touching at the same time) while all the other human guests are being killed downstairs. Returning to work, his sudden craving for blood (luckily he works at a hospital with a full 'bank') concerns his fellow (comic) orderlies. Meanwhile back at the mansion, the Count (he and his main concubines are all white, allowing for nice colonialist subtext) bites the wrists of his ladies to sample all the blood they've collected over the evening. Like a pimp getting his cut, or the British levying some new tax, but when he gets to our hapless car troubled hero's virgin blood from the neophyte vamp, mmm-mmm he finds it so delicious he demands the she find him and bring him back to the castle for a full drain, but she's young and maybe in love so wants to find him and warn him and/or run off together.  The stage is set for a hilarious, chilling showdown, Drac and his dames invade the hospital for a lengthy siege, like a comic-horror version of Hard-Boiled. It may be sewing with some familiar threads (Lost Boys, Near Dark, etc) but Doctor Vampire overflows with ingenuity and wit, especially during the parking lot Tibetan monk demon-repelling ceremony (allowing for everyone to don ceremonial garb and hide out onstage like some vague echo of On the Town) and tons of cool touches like the use of a surgical laser, an operating light shaped like a cross, giant syringes full of acid, and a magical Buddha statue the Count makes the mistake of spitting on.

(1972) Dir. John Hayes
Movie - **1/2 / image: A

Potent, lurid, unapologetic - even a tad disturbing in its Larry Cohen-style bluntness--GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE has a familiar 70s-thriller late night TV movie style that makes its lurid violence all the more disturbing. In the prologue, a newly unearthed vampire kills a man on a date and drags the woman into an open grave to sexually assault her, and bite her (of course). Newly restored to human-ish looks, he starts a career in disguise as a professor (night school?) while the traumatized woman winds up giving birth to a half-vampire that needs blood, not milk, from mama (so she dies). The baby grows up into a brooding half-vamp man (William Smith) with a huge collar, who vows to find his evil father and destroy him. Meanwhile, the professor vampire researches the occult, pauses now and then to bite sexy librarians who wont loan him rare grimoires, and seduces and destroys an array of sexually open hotties in his swingin' 70s neighborhood.

Though inherently depressing in its subject (sexual assault is always a bummer) and overly familiar in its iconography, there are a lot of elements that make it worthwhile, most notably the moody avant garde score by Jaime Mendoza-Nava and the fact that that the film's large female cast are portrayed and acted as adult women, with evolved 70s women's lib attitudes towards sex and careers (making an interesting counterpoint to the vampire's rapey misreading of their social cues). Despite rather goofy fangs, Michael Pataki is a scary vampire, doing a very cool thing with his eyes where they seem to go completely dead and impassive when its time to attack, like shark eyes. Best of all is Paul Hipp's cinematography: it's almost Godfather level dark, with deep moody blacks which seem to envelop scenes like a blanket--the tight angles and cluttered college townhouse sets gives scenes a familiar claustrophobia that should be familiar to any hip faculty housing alcoholic. It's this tight, realistic cramped feel that makes the final knock-out upstairs/downstairs brawl between father and son all the more familiar, cathartic and destructive.

But even then, beware! This is one downbeat picture. Make sure your SSRI meds are all up to date!

(1988) Dir. Robert Bierman
**1/2 / Image - A

A lot of us genuinely debauched 90s New Yorkers wistfully thought of this film while being underwhelmed by American Psycho. Nic Cage is way crazier here, in more or less the same role, than Christian Bale was in that much better known film, and without trying half as hard. Maybe Cage's publishing house executive is less rich, but he's even more of a bully, especially after being seduced and drained of precious bodily fluids by clubbing vampire Jennifer Beals. But did it even happen? As with Ferrara's superior THE ADDICTION, because the vamp attack occurs in the anonymity of the big city -- and there are no witnesses in the boudoir-- we wonder if she's just a schizophrenic anima-projection mirage. Be it either way, vampire or hallucination, you'll laugh, cry, and kiss reality goodbye when you dig Nic babbling to the street pole at the end, as crazy as a bedbug and ready for his LEAVING LAS VEGAS Oscar. Young, hungry and hammy, Cage pushes nearly every scene way way off the deep end, torturing his bewildered, hard-working Latina secretary (Maria Conchita Alonso) and his patient, clockwatching lady shrink (Elizabeth Ashley) with his frothing head games and vicious misogyny. Sure, it can all be a little overly improv-manic, at times scenes seem to drag on just so Cage can get it all out of his system, but as a kind of male version of REPULSION as well as a vivid snapshot of late-80s NYC club-and-yuppie addiction-alienation, it can't be beat, even by a Bale-full.

Alas, Bierman's big directorial weakness is this compulsion to crosscut constantly, almost mockingly, ever back from Cage to the staid working class foil secretary and her drab proletariat life (riding the subway; giving $$ to beggars; family gatherings, etc.). I'm sure it's meant to contrast the two ends of New York City life--the privileged white twentysomething male who moved here after college (hey hey!) and the working class ethnic woman, a local NY native pushed to the outer boroughs by rising rents. Very admirable I'm sure, bro, but Alonso's goodness is just a series of cliches -- Bierman seems unwilling to lend any kind of real 'felt' depth to her parts, it's always clear where his heart lies.

Irregardless, if you hadn't realized back in '88 (when he'd just come off Raising Arizona and Moonstruck) that Cage was a staggering wild talent --genuinely edgy (as in the edge between genius and hammy terribleness)--you knew it after Vampire's Kiss. True manic craziness has seldom reached such heights, ever, and maybe not even here. Maybe I imagined it. 

*** (image - A)

Lensed by the great DP, Bill Butler (JAWS, DEMON SEED) in great countercultural AIP semi-documentary style, part Kovacs elaborate pull focuses, part Gordon Willis darkness and wall paint texture, the film might be a bit shoddy special effects-wise but it looks great. (see full review here: Manson Poppins): 

(1933) Dir. Frank Strayer
**1/2 / Image - B

It's a PRC with a top shelf Universal sets --they must have had some weird deal to use them after they were through with them for the night. So there are lots of great old stairwells and finely painted rock walls, oil lamps and cobblestone streets in that grand, nebulous, everywhere and nowhere Universal small 'vaguely Eastern European' village tradition. There are even some of the same craggy character actors (like perennial bürgermeister Lionel Belmore). So even if there's no Bela Lugosi or real vampire, there's Lionel Atwill as a scientist who needs blood for his experiments and controls Robert Frazer through telepathy, Dwight Frye petting bats, and Fay Wray screaming on the operating table while homicide detective Melvyn Douglas pounds at the door! As Timothy Carey put it while strapping Linda Evans to the log splitter conveyer belt in Beach Blanket Bingo, I got a weakness for the classics, baby. If you do too, Vampire Bat is a fine point at which to weaken. Maude Eburne is the comic relief; murder-mystery barnstormer Frank Strayer directed.

(1970) Dir. Andy Milligan
**1/2 / Amazon Image: B

If you too are rooster-level fascinated by the white chalk line between high-camp/low budget art (Warhol, Fassbinder, Waters) and junk basement DIY third-feature grindhouse marquee filler (Steckler, Lewis, Mikels), then maybe you know his name - Andy Milligan. Maybe you know him as hulking behind the skid row alley between the outsider sub-Sirkian soap smut of Kuchar, the drag grotesquery of Smith, the magickal grand Poobah butchness of Anger, the punk sneer of Jarman and the pulpy opportunism of Al Adamson. There he crouches, waiting patiently for you to run out of other chalky options, still staring and cockle-doodling, this pioneer from the days when grindhouse local NYC DIY bathhouse gay art movies were still considered easy busts by vice squads. Maybe it's his 'shoot fast and be ready to run off with the camera' whiplash filming approach that makes Milligan's films seem sometimes so urgent and important. This theater group-ish reworking of Dracula and House of Frankenstein, may not be one of those times. Washed-out to the point that all the whites have gone quite turquoise from the process of blowing up cheap 16mm to 35mm for distribution (known as "the Milligan sheen"), this Beneath has the look of stressed wood finish, which fits well the Gothic austerity of the decaying British abbey where most of the action occurs.

The story of a few nights in the life of a vampire couple--the soapily-named (and acted) "reverend" Algernon Ford (Gavin Reed), wife Susan (Jackie Scarvellis)--their hunchback servant Spool (Berwick Kaler), and assorted thuggish underlings--there's plenty of transfusions, betrayals (and in a surprising scene, an apology to Spool by Algy after he's unusually bitchy) and enough talk about royal bloodlines to awaken any dozing conspiracy theorists from their twitchy slumber (a Milligan home viewing inevitability). Chosen (female) descendants are forced into the job of breeding new vampire heirs, and, once imprisoned, they set about trying to befriend Spool so he'll help them escape. Spool conflicted! Meanwhile circumstance is compelling the whole clan to move to America; the bobbies are closing in.

Nicolas Winding Refn is apparently a fan of Milligan's and worked to get this film released (on a BFI Flipside) and so you may go ahead and consider this grungy overexposed 'Dark Shadows on quaaludes' un-masterpiece as high art and know you're not alone. The house in UK where it was filmed was supposedly where the titular Beggar's Banquet Stones album gatefold photo was taken, so the big banquet table, here awash in tints, diaphanous cellophane capes, cannibalism, fruit mashing, and impassioned monologues, all twisted around around into a solar flare candy floss daze, has Satanic rock history all over it. Milligan's camera whirls like it's being passed around the table at a real Satanic time travel bacchanal. There's a nice score of woodwinds (library cues?) and occasionally a buzzing heartbeat undertone that's quite effective. With all that Vaseline on the lens and all those layered canopies of cellophane colors, one finds the kind of off-the-cuff expressionism that--whether intentional or not--evokes an old-school two-strip Technicolor 'reeling in the centuries' kind of mood.

All in all pretty impressive considering Milligan was his own cinematographer, editor, and wardrobe mistress (using aliases for each job no doubt to make the film seem more 'professional' - we've all done it). Maybe my expectations were just so low, thanks to Michael Weldon's damningly faint praise in Psychotronic, but I admire Body's lurching camera, its strange edits, its occasional lapses into a kind of Masterpiece Theater arch hamminess, and the sudden cuts to the three witches/sisters/brides of the vampire (all in different color cellophane capes) emerging like a pack of silent hounds whenever a guy or girl is chosen for death. If you actually enjoy this film all the way through, maybe it's true what Weldon says: there's no hope for you. But since Amazon Prime also has Guru the Mad Monk, you will soon get over any delusions of being a new fan. I know I did. Blechhh!

Or you can turn off the TV before making that mistake. You can go out in the night... maybe there is hope yet. But there's so much more to see down here in the bargain crypt....of Dracula's Prime. And who knows when they'll disappear? By the time you read this they could all be gone... or worse... they could have come... for thee.

PS. LATE ADDITION (9/29/16):

(1974) Dir. Jose Ramon Larraz
*** / (Amazon Image - B+)

By the time Vampyres came out the lesbian vampire cycle had waned, but it's still one of the best. Less lyrical and lulling than Franco or Rollin, not as sweeping or narrative-driven as Hammer, it'z more satisfying than either, with good pacing (it's erotic but never falls into a softcore torpor) interesting offbeat characters (no cliche' types, even the mustached swingers have souls), a moody dark green patina (lovely indoor candle lighting and outdoor twilight gloom) and a scenario any man could relate to: being lured to the house of two hot girls after the pub closes (gorgeous blonde innocent Anulka Dziubinska and terrifyingly carnal Marianne Morris) getting drunk with them by the fire, passing out, and then waking up drained, robbed, and alone in the house, or worse, dead. In short, Vampyres proves an indispensable primer on the dangers of priapism no man (or lesbian) should be without.


  1. Yay Deathmaster! It was googling that movie after watching on Amazon that originally led me to this wonderful blog.

  2. Curse the fact that I have only discovered your blog in the last...three...days. Prime no longer has many of these gems.

  3. A bit indirect as a vampire film but...LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH! 'Course there's an entire site devoted to that movie.


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