Monday, February 27, 2017

Vampire films of the 1970s covered well in new book

Review by Doug Gibson

"Vampire Films of the 1970s: Dracula to Blacula and Every Fang Between," a new book from genre author Gary A. Smith, does the usual, thorough McFarland Books job with its subject. Smith reviews the bloodsucker films of the era to a fault. To a cult nerd's delight, he spends time with 70s vampire films of schlock auteurs Andy Milligan and Al Adamson.

The low-budget Europe import films of Jean Rollin, Jess Franco are covered well, as is the "Dracula included" films of Europe's most famous werewolf, Paul Naschy (his films are a pleasant surprise after the leaden Rollin and Franco efforts). In fact, Smith spares a few paragraphs for porn versions of the vampire legend.

So, from Hammer, to Blacula, to AIP, to Franco, to Naschy to Rollin, to Langella, Dan Curtis, Santo the wrestler, porn, Masterpiece Theater, TV with the Night Stalker, and other oddities, "Vampire Films of the 1970s covers a lot of ground.

It's a delight for genre fans. Although Smith lacks the tolerance for "bad" films that most genre fans enjoy, he assesses dozens of films concisely but thoroughly, with strong plot outlines as well. Hammer, of course, is the dominant player of 70s vampire films through about 1975. Smith, intentionally or not, captures a readable scenario in charting Hammer's slow march to insolvency through the decade.

Early in the 70s, Hammer exploited the lesbian possibilities of the "Carmilla" novel, and other vampire plots, with such as "The Vampire Lovers," "Twins of Evil," "Lust for Vampire." The Countess Bathory was another popular option, with films such as "Countess Dracula." The films were full of gothic beauty, and an abundance of sex and nudity. Others were "Scars of Dracula" and "Vampire Circus."

European filmmakers tried to imitate Hammer, with some small success, particularly "Daughters of Darkness," a Belgian import. The aforementioned Naschy tried his hand with "Count Dracula's Great Love," an inferior Hammer imitation with beautiful women, lots of flesh, and, save Naschy, abysmal acting. "The Werewolf versus the Vampire Woman," from Naschy, is a better film, with a memorably creepy performance from the Bathory-like Patty Shepard.

And yes, gutter auteurs Rollin and Franco produced several films. They are unique -- the mark of an auteur -- but leaden and lifeless. The women are gorgeous, and often unclothed, but the films creep and creep along. I watched Rollin's "The Nude Vampire" and 80-plus minutes seemed like 5 hours. As for Franco, watching his "faithful" adaptation of "Count Dracula" with Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski (he had talent in the cast!) is painful. It's a test the Spanish director fails. (Smith provides an interesting backstory of how Spanish cinema became more daring as the Franco dictatorship came to an end).

Author Smith is to be commended for the bits of information gathered, including the box office success of the films, where they played in Europe, and the United States. As mentioned, he charts Hammer's decline into bankruptcy. Near the middle of the decade, the company moved its vampire films' time periods to present day. "Dracula AD 1972" is a dated mess, "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" is better, but again with a present-day setting, the gothic beauty of the Hammer films is lost.

"Satanic Rites...," one of a several 70s vampire films I watched the past week, is also overly sadistic and more prurient. It seems to be an effort by Hammer, strangely, to try to emulate the inferior Franco and Naschy efforts.

"Satanic Rites" flopped, Lee left the series, Hammer made a strange martial arts vampire film, and the company slipped into insolvency.

Smith notes well the low-budget films that competed for bloodsucker box office. AIP made "Blacula" and a sequel, Santo the wrestler battled some vampires, Adamsom mixed two movies to make "Doctor Dracula," a film with both the vampire and Svengali! Two Milligan films, "The Body Beneath" and "Blood," are reviewed. Smith dislikes both, but "The Body Beneath" is quite good, in my opinion.

Lest, I forget, "Andy Warhol's Dracula" (AKA "Blood For Dracula), is also looked at by Smith. Director Paul Morrissey threads the vampire story with a strong Marxist theme conveyed by the Van Helsing-like Joe Dallesandro. Ironically, a little bit of that social justice is also present in the far-better "Countess Dracula."

As Smith notes, late in the decade the above-average "Dracula," with Frank Langella, was a major release if not overwhelming hit. Also, there were well-produced television adaptations of "Dracula" produced.

I recommend Smith's book, pricey as it may be. It's thorough and entertaining. It'd be fun to read a "Frankenstein Monster Films of the 1970s," if just to read an overview of the truly dreadful, unique schlock "Blackenstein."

You can find out more by calling McFarland at its number, 800-253-2187.

A postscript: I watched several of the films mentioned in Smith's book last week. Here are some capsule observations:

-- "Doctor Dracula" -- It's typical Al Adamson, editing two films to make one. The actor who plays Doctor Dracula isn't too bad, but the camp value is in how bad the actress who plays Trilby is. John Carradine slums in this effort.

-- "The Nude Vampire" -- Jean Rollin managed to cast the most beautiful actresses, but his films are pretentious and dull. There's a slight anti-capitalist theme in this story of exploited "mutants" who act like vampires. I do love the twins in this film, though.

-- "Count Dracula's Great Love" -- I like Paul Naschy as the vampire in this Hammer imitation with more nudity. But the other actors are terrible, and the plot pedestrian. Naschy, though, makes it worth a viewing.

-- "Dracula Vs. Frankenstein" -- Very dated, set in the '70s with Michael Rennie (his last film) as an alien trying to do something that involves many monsters. Naschy, as a werewolf, battles a mummy, which may be a first. Also know as "Assignment Terror."

--"The Werewolf Vs. the Vampire Woman" -- My second-favorite of the films I watched, with Naschy acting well as a man-werewolf trying to protect women from a truly creepy vampire woman.

-- "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" -- It has its moments, especially with Joanna Lumley being menaced in a dungeon by women vampires. But's it's often sadistic and the 1970s setting weakens the film's impact. Cushing and Lee are good, though.

-- "Countess Dracula" -- The best film I saw, Ingrid Pitt is superb as Countess Dracula, Lesley-Anne Down good as her imprisoned daughter. The film is beautifully shot, lush in color with a strong Gothic feel.

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