January 25, 2012

Mr Movie Fiend: That '70s Vampire

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)

Vampires in the movies are the most human of monsters. They were once people just like you and me. They can pass for human, as long as they stay away from crosses, garlic, and mirrors. They often have feelings for their victims, especially the beautiful, sultry ones with whom they'd like to share eternity. But when they get hungry-- watch out!  They're perhaps the most dangerous monsters, because one moment you think you're talking to a fellow human being, and the next you're feeling the thing's fangs in your neck.

Being so connected to humanity, vampires have been a horror staple for as long as movies have been around. While other movie monsters have had their ups and downs in popularity (seen any giant radioactive or man-made Frankenstein monsters in your local theater lately?), the reliable vampire keeps appearing in film after film, decade after decade. On the production side, these human monsters don't require a huge special effects budget to pull off some decent shocks. And for audiences, vampires are a double bonus: 1.) they provide the basic vicarious thrill of confronting death in a "safe" way on the movie or TV screen; and 2.) they embody the urge to power, glamor and eternal life that we all have to some extent (abundantly evident in today's Twilightish teen vampire heros).

When it comes to vampires, I'm old school (oh alright, I'm just plain old). I think of Bela Lugosi with his paper-white face and classic cape, or Christopher Lee's blood-red eyes fixed on his latest victim. In my book, vampires should be honest to goodness, irredeemable monsters thirsting after blood, uncaring about the death and destruction they cause-- not angst-ridden, pasty-faced teens worrying about their social standing or their next date. And don't get me started on the other current craze, the kick ass martial arts-trained vampires of the Blade and Underworld series…

To be fair, sci-fi/vampire mashups are nothing new. In the '50s and '60s, when Hammer was reviving Dracula in glorious technicolor, other filmmakers were reinventing the vampire as yet another atom/space age threat. John Beal's The Vampire (1957) was the victim of a genetics experiment gone awry. Italy's Atom Age Vampire (Seddok, l'erede di Satana, 1960) was the result of more mischievous science. And the ravenous Queen of Blood (1966) was from another planet altogether. By the early '70s, both Hammer's gothic vampire revival and the atom age vampire were played out, and the bloodsucking genre was ready for yet another reset. (Ironically, a film often cited as the final nail in the coffin -- forgive the pun -- of Hammer Studios is 1974's The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a bizarre pairing of Dracula with the Shaw brothers' frenetic martial artists. While a box office failure, the film was undeniably an early trend setter, considering that martial-artsy vampires are a dime a dozen these days.)

The reset was very simple. Forget the gothic castles and the atomic labs said the low-budget filmmakers-- let's set a supernatural vampire loose on the streets of contemporary Anytown, U.S.A. and see what kind of fun we can have. Perhaps the best-known '70s vampire in this mold is Dan Curtis' TV movie The Night Stalker (1972). This ingenious mashup of classic hard-boiled crime thriller and supernatural vampire tale is set in Las Vegas. A lot of the film's energy and entertainment value derives from watching grizzled reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) trying to convince his journalistic colleagues and the authorities that vampires do exist, here and now. Curtis had a lot of fun with the "what if" scenario, going so far as to include a harrowing and at the same time tongue-in-cheek scene in which the vampire gets caught raiding a blood bank.

Another, even earlier entry in the "vampire next door" sweepstakes was Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Pretty much forgotten today (except for eccentric baby boomers like myself), Count Yorga was something of a micro-budget sensation in its day, like the original Paranormal Activity (2007). Originally conceived as a softcore porn movie under the title The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire, the producers wisely decided to play it as straight horror instead, and a minor legend was born.

See the full post at Mr Movie Fiend.

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