September 25, 2019

Blood of the Vampirish Streaming Service: Special Netflix Cancellation Edition

Poster - Blood of the Vampire (1958)
Now Playing: Blood of the Vampire (1958)

Pros: Plenty of Gothic atmosphere; helped reboot Gothic horror in the late ‘50s.
Cons: Lacks action and chills; the villain is more of a dumpy burgomeister-type than a horrifying menace

I finally did it -- I canceled Netflix. I’ve been complaining intermittently about Big Red on this blog for years (along with cable companies, satellite TV and other assorted big media miscreants). So, after a long period of growing disenchantment, I put my money where my mouth is.

It was one of those classic relationships gone sour. In the beginning, I was head-over-heels in love with it. We had our first date back in the day of big box video rental stores. What wasn’t there to love? It had a DVD library no rental store could match, you could keep the discs as long as you needed without penalty, all you had to do was walk to your mailbox to pick up your discs, and you didn’t have to deal with snotty, pimply-faced clerks demanding their pound of replacement fees for a disc you know you returned.

I finally made the decision to dump Netflix
It's a sad fact that familiarity often breeds contempt, and at least for me, it wasn’t long before Netflix’s bright red logo started to turn around the edges. First, there was the company’s bungled plan to divide its DVD-by-mail and streaming services with separate websites and an inane renaming of the DVD service to “Qwikster.” Predictably, there was a hike in fees to “better serve customers.”

By 2011, the handwriting was on the wall, and streaming was the future. I made the executive decision to go exclusively with the streaming option, as it was priced right and there were still some hidden gems here and there of interest to old movie farts like me. Netflix was still furiously trying to build its streaming catalog by going after anything that they could license quickly and cheaply.

I remember being impressed that they had the old 1945 Republic jungle-vampire chiller The Vampire’s Ghost ready to stream (see my review here). If that was part of the catalog, then anything was possible! But time marches on, and with it, Netflix’s streams changed course. Netflix decided the real money was in original programming and reruns of popular TV shows. Theatrical movies were shoved into the background, and the classic movies almost disappeared altogether.

Now Big Red is a would-be monopolist, throwing money around the entertainment world like a drunken tourist at a Tijuana titty bar, trying to entice subscribers with content only they can deliver. I get it -- things change, corporations are in business to make money, not cater to the oddball tastes of nerds like me, etc., etc.

It’s not you Netflix, it’s me. You changed, I didn’t. Now you’re off to woo all those twenty-somethings with edgy original content and sitcoms like Friends that the kids can watch on their smartphones as they stand in line at the Apple store. It’s okay, you gotta be you. I’ll get by just fine. I’ve been seeing someone else. She’s an Amazon, and her name is Prime. Yes, it’s purely a commercial relationship, and she works for a megalomaniac who looks like a bad knockoff of Dr. Evil, but I can’t bring myself to hold that against her.

Mike Myers as Dr. Evil; Jeff Bezos as himself
Dr. Evil and his clone (aka Jeff Bezos) contemplate world domination.

She has the usual Emmy-bait shows and exclusive, “can’t-live-without” content, but she still loves classic movies -- she’s got a ton of them -- and she can let her hair down and enjoy a really cheesy B movie when the mood strikes. Plus, she’s always giving me presents, like free music and cloud storage, and all for less than Netflix’s basic subscription. Knowing that nothing good lasts forever, I will enjoy this relationship while I can. It’s satisfying that I can access a pretty decent library of oldies without having to sell blood to pay for it.

Speaking of selling blood, Blood of the Vampire (1958) is a good example of the kind of cheesy old B movie that you can still find on Prime. Over the years it’s been misidentified as a Hammer picture, as it was scripted by the same man, Jimmy Sangster, who wrote Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958) and The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and it came out around the same time as Hammer’s first Dracula. It was produced by a company called Artistes Alliance Ltd., and while the name sounds a bit pretentious for the product they were turning out, their timing seems to have been impeccable.

It has that familiar Hammer look-and-feel, being set in a creepy castle turned prison-for-the-criminally-insane in “Carlstadt” in 1880. It also features the lovely future Hammer scream queen Barbara Shelley. Unfortunately, the film’s pace is lackadaisical compared to Hammer’s energetic Gothic horror adaptations. Worse yet, the titular vampire is one in name only, being more a case of mistaken identity.

It seems the forbidding Dr. Callistratus (Donald Wolfit), like Hammer’s Victor Frankenstein, ran afoul of the superstitious locals with his infernal experiments in transfusing blood. Condemning him as a vampire, they hauled him out to a remote burial spot and drove a stake through his heart. Fortunately, Callistratus’ Quasimodo-like assistant Carl (Victor Maddern) rescued the body and took it back into town, whereupon a local doctor, trained by Callistratus, performed a heart transplant and revived the mad scientist.

Donald Wolfit and Victor Maddern in Blood of the Vampire (1958)
"I'm telling you Carl, mainlining Bloody Marys
is the only way to go!"
Fast forward to 1880 and Carlstadt, where Callistratus has gotten himself a gig as the head honcho of the maximum security castle-prison. Very much in the Hammer Frankenstein tradition (and a bit like Dracula), he is using the prisoners for his diabolic experiments, including draining them of their blood to keep himself alive.

The film cleverly sets up a hero who is the mirror opposite of Callistratus. John Pierre (Vincent Ball) is also a doctor, and just like Callistratus, has gotten himself in trouble with the locals with his medical experimentation. Unlike Callistratus, he was trying to save a life by performing a blood transfusion, but the patient died. He is charged with “murder by medical malpractice,” convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Callistratus, needing help with his research into blood groups, arranges for Pierre to be transferred to his den of horrors. Not realizing that his sentence has been overturned due to the post-trial testimony of an old medical colleague, Pierre agrees to help the diabolical doctor. But he soon realizes that Callistratus’s research is not for the benefit of humanity, only himself, and that the hopeless prisoners are very expendable in his quest for immortality.

Laboratory scene, Blood of the Vampire (1958)
John Pierre (Vincent Ball) wonders what the bloody hell
is going on in Callistratus' laboratory.
Barbara Shelley plays Pierre’s plucky fiance Madeleine, who has been told Pierre was killed in a failed escape. When she learns otherwise, she gets herself hired as a new housemaid at the castle to get to the bottom of the deception. The pathetic, mute hunchback Carl of course falls for Madeleine, which greatly helps the lovers at the climax.

Blood of the Vampire is long on atmosphere, but short on horror. It’s more of a Gothic romance, with Callistratus as the dark master of the castle, lording it over his alter-ego Pierre and the beautiful Madeleine.

Carl is horrifying to look at, and he’s willing to kill at his master’s orders, but he ends up being a softie. There are intermittent shots of manacled prisoners and skeletons and the mad scientist’s creepy laboratory, but Callistratus himself is more reminiscent of a stout burgomeister from a Universal or Hammer movie than a sinister menace. He does, however, sport some pretty rad eyebrows and vampirish widow’s peak.

Aside from the bloody experiments that are done mainly offscreen, the biggest menace is the pack of vicious Dobermans that Callistratus keeps on the grounds to prevent escapes. They account for a good portion of the film’s action -- what little there is.

Blood of the Vampire is kind of like a Halloween haunted house attraction that has invested a lot in hanging skeletons, static torture devices, cobwebs, rubber spiders, etc., but the organizers forgot to include things to jump out at you. You can admire the production design, but the thrill just isn’t there.

Callistratus' dungeon in Blood of the Vampire (1958)
"Hey Maddy, this party is a bore -- let's go hang out somewhere else!"

Still, the film has a bit of history going for it. It debuted in 1958 along with Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, and contributed in its own small way to the rebirth of cinematic Gothic horror. And according to the movie’s IMDb page, it was one of the first, if not the first, horror films to be released on VHS.

Where to find it: You can see it courtesy of my friend Amazon Prime, or buy it on a double-feature DVD here.

September 7, 2019

Dracula vs. the Hippies: Special '70s Hammer Horror Edition, Part Two

Poster - Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
Now Playing: Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

Pros: Peter Cushing’s gravitas offsets some of the cringe-inducing aspects of the film; Stephanie Beacham is very good as Cushing’s granddaughter, Jessica Van Helsing.
Cons: The film’s attempt to capture the look and lingo of ‘70s London youth culture descends to near-parody.

In part one of my examination of Hammer’s early ‘70s attempt to crack the youth market, I reviewed Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). Despite the lurid title, the film was a not-so-subtle dig at the establishment, what with almost all the adult characters being corrupt or incompetent, and a climax that had the young protagonists saving the day without any help from their useless elders.

Just a little over two years after Taste the Blood, Hammer released Dracula A.D. 1972, which on the surface looked to be an extreme concession to the youth market, set in the (then) present day and full of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. And yet, the underlying message is a mirror image to the previous film’s -- this time, it’s the younger generation’s turn to be almost uniformly corrupt and/or incompetent, and the old guard’s turn to save their butts from the evil they’ve unwittingly released.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) scores his first victim in Dracula A.D. 1972
"Hmmm, dense and full-bodied, with overtones of weed,
barbiturates and vodka, and just a hint of espresso..."
As for resurrecting Dracula, by 1972 Hammer had boiled it down to a few simple steps.

“Bloody Dracula” Recipe (with apologies to Bloody Mary)

1 vial of Dracula’s ashes
Liberal amount of blood from an acolyte or sacrificial victim
1 de-sanctified church
A group of bored, corruptible disciples
1 Black Mass
Optional: Dracula’s cape or ring

Mix the first two ingredients while celebrating the Black Mass with your disciples in the de-sanctified church. Wearing Dracula’s cape and/or ring is not required, but it looks cooler. Skol!

The creepy instigator in A.D. 1972 is Johnny Alucard (hmmm, that name seems familiar somehow), played by Christopher Neame. Johnny is part of a group of “with it” kids who have grown bored with their usual routine of crashing adult parties, smoking pot, and hanging out at bars until the wee hours.

Johnny proposes that they do something “way, way out,” by celebrating a black mass at the local abandoned, de-sanctified church. Most of the group thinks it might be good for some “giggles,” but Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham) and her boyfriend Bob (Philip Miller) are leery of playing around at something so dark and twisted. Still, they relent and everyone agrees to meet at midnight at the church.

Little do they know that Johnny is a deadly serious descendant of a disciple of Dracula’s, and intends to resurrect the Count on the 100th anniversary of the battle between the vampire and Lawrence Van Helsing that resulted in both their deaths.

Jessica and Bob are even more weirded out when they discover Van Helsing’s grave marker in the churchyard (Jessica is a great-granddaughter), and realize the significance of the date. But, peer pressure being what it is, they participate anyway.

Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) presides over the Black Mass, Dracula A.D. 1972
Johnny violates the laws of God and Man, and London's
regulations banning smoking in public places.
In this 1972 version of the Black Mass, Alucard, wearing a monk’s cowl (and Dracula’s ring!), presides to the accompaniment of weird music playing on a tape deck. His band of unwitting disciples are sitting around a pentagram drawn on the floor, swaying to the primeval beat. In one of the film's more embarrassing moments, Johnny exhorts them to “Dig the music kids!”

Johnny wants Jessica to come to the altar to complete the ritual, but she freezes like a deer in the headlights, knowing that something is definitely not right. Jessica’s friend Laura (Caroline Munro), gets caught up in the moment and enthusiastically volunteers (a decision she will very quickly regret).

Before you can say “Alucard,” there is the glint of the ritual knife, pouring blood, and Dracula’s ashes boiling up like an infernal stew. When Johnny pours the bloody mess all over Laura’s heaving chest, the other kids scatter to the four winds. Jessica doesn’t want to leave the sobbing Laura behind, but Bob’s self-preservation instincts win out and he drags her away.

Johnny delivers the coup-de-grace when he removes the stake (the splintered carriage spoke that killed Dracula a century before) from the Count’s remains, which were surreptitiously buried on the church grounds near Van Helsing’s.

Laura learns an important life lesson -- never voluntarily lie on a de-sanctified altar during a Black Mass -- but unfortunately it goes to waste as she becomes the revivified Count’s first victim. Her body, drained of blood, is discovered at a construction site near the church. Meanwhile, Johnny, who witnessed her demise, coolly tells his friends that she’s gone off to visit family.

Lorrimer (Peter Cushing) and Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) have a heart-to-heart talk in Dracula A.D. 1972
Jessica tells her grandfather all about the peer pressure
to smoke, drink, do drugs, and conduct ritual sacrifices.
To investigators, a body drained of blood and dumped near a de-sanctified church has all the earmarks of a cult ritual killing. When they identify the victim and connect the dots to her friends, Jessica’s name pops up. Lead Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) is intrigued, recalling that Lorrimer, Jessica’s grandfather and a respected anthropologist and expert on the occult (Peter Cushing), had helped Scotland Yard previously on a case involving modern-day witchcraft. Jessica and Lorrimer suddenly become persons-of-interest.

The inspectors interview Lorrimer first, who, upon learning that Laura’s body was drained, schools the skeptical policemen on the “positive proof” of vampires and his own grandfather’s battle with Dracula. “There are dark corners, horrors almost impossible to imagine, even in our worst nightmares,” he informs them. However, Lorrimer’s academic interest in a possible case of vampirism turns into real concern when he learns that his granddaughter is involved.

Scotland Yard turns out to be the least of their concerns, as Dracula, with the aid of disciple Johnny, begins hunting down the kids with the ultimate aim of wreaking vengeance on all living Van Helsings.

In Taste the Blood of Dracula, the young Londoners were both the instrument of Dracula’s revenge and his undoing. The corrupt, hypocritical Victorian establishment was responsible for the Count’s resurrection, and only incorruptible youth could save the day. Fast forward to 1972, and it’s now the establishment’s turn (in the form of Scotland Yard and the astute, scholarly Lorrimer Van Helsing) to save London from the actions of clueless youngsters.

Bar scene in Dracula A.D. 1972
Sex, drugs and black masses don't seem to be doing the
trick for the callow youths of London.

In both films, Dracula is the dark, merciless Karma that catches up with the hypocritical hedonists of the leisure class, young and old. Both are subversive in the sense that, in spite of the obvious suffering of the victims, there’s a little piece of us (or maybe a big piece) thinking that they're getting what they deserve.

A.D. 1972’s counter-counterculture message is that the kids are definitely not alright, that in their selfishness and hedonism they are nothing but spoiled lambs to the slaughter in the face of evil -- with the exception of Jessica of course, who after all, is a Van Helsing. Jessica’s head and heart are in the right place, but she has problems resisting peer pressure.

Stephanie Beacham is very natural and authentic portraying a girl torn between pleasing her less cautious, less intelligent friends and living up to her grandfather’s faith in her. Peter Cushing is a delight as usual as the refined, empathetic Lorrimer, surrounded by books and artifacts accumulated over a long academic career, yet willing to step up and be a man of action when the circumstances call for it. Their scenes together -- he, the doting, concerned grandfather; she, grateful for the concern but also feisty and wanting to live life on her own terms -- save the film from being just a cheesy horror genre rip on youth culture.


A.D. 1972 once again calls for Van Helsing to put aside his books and gentlemanly manner and become a man of geri-action. Since Cushing was pushing 60 at the time, he wasn’t required to get quite as physical as in earlier roles, but in vampire hunter mode he still is stabbed with a switchblade, chased up the old church stairs, and generally thrown around like a rag doll (okay, so I'm sure there was a stunt man involved, but still...).

Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) confronts Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) in Dracula A.D. 1972
Johnny is upset about missing his morning nap.
Of course, as every vampire slayer knows, you kill ‘em with brains, not brawn. Disciple Johnny, who by this point has been turned into a vampire, is first on the list. After Johnny stabs Van Helsing in the arm with a switchblade (I guess new vampires often revert to the tools they know rather than relying on their super-strength or sharp canines), it looks bad for the vampire hunter. But as the morning sun’s rays stream through the curtains of Johnny’s apartment, Lorrimer cleverly throws a bible and cross into his coffin, then uses a makeup mirror (vain boy, that Johnny) to direct the light onto the hapless lad and force him into the bathroom, where there is plenty of sunlight and clear, running water from the shower to dispense with him.

Sidebar: At the Monster Bash convention in Mars, PA this past June, Christopher Neame was asked about his experiences on the set of A.D. 1972. Being only 23 at the time, he recalled that the slender, self-effacing Cushing was as "strong as an ox,” during filming of the fight scenes. He also laughed about his death scene. Back in the day, English film crews observed strict union rules and hours. Once the director yelled cut, everyone cleared out, leaving him soaked and in full makeup.

With one disciple down, Van Helsing must confront Dracula in his lair, the abandoned church, where Jessica is hypnotized and laid out on the altar. Before it’s all over, he will have to pull out all the stops and all his vampire-fighting tools, including holy water, a silver-bladed knife, and a special surprise trap in the churchyard. The coup-de-grace he administers to Dracula is particularly brutal.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) is repulsed by the silver cross Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) is wearing in Dracula A.D. 1972
Jessica Van Helsing does her best imitation of the lady
on all those truck mudflaps.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is a competent, traditional Hammer vampire story wrapped up in Mod packaging in a fairly cynical attempt to keep the kids flocking to the theaters and drive-ins. The depiction of London youth culture is as phony as a three-dollar bill (or should I say three pound note?), dreamed up by middle-aged writers and producers who seem to have done their research looking at tabloids and bad TV shows.

Still, if you can get past the cringey pandering, there are good performances (especially Cushing and Meacham), touching scenes between grandfather and granddaughter, and exciting action sequences.

As mentioned previously, Christopher Neame was a newcomer at the time, having only appeared in a small role in Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire (1971) and a couple of TV series before scoring as pasty-faced Johnny Alucard. He since has done dozens of movies and TV series, including stints on Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. He’s still working, having recently made the Hammer homage House of the Gorgon (2019) with scream-queen icons Caroline Munroe, Veronica Carlson, and Martine Beswick and independent filmmaker Jamie Kennedy.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee go at it in the final confrontation of Dracula A.D. 1972
"Look here Van Helsing, this is how you do the Monster Mash!"
Stephanie Beacham is also still working, with a similarly lengthy list of TV shows and movies on her eclectic resume, including Pete Walker's Schizo (1976), Horrorplanet (aka Inseminoid; 1981), and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I’ll leave the final word with Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, the “biographers” of Hammer Films:
“[T]he film has long-suffered a reputation as a monumental misjudgement. … Dracula A.D. 1972 gets more entertaining with the passing of time, and is perhaps best enjoyed as an endearing, if naive, picture of an era that never was.” The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films, Titan Books, 2007, p. 157.
Where to find it: Dracula A.D. 1972 shares space with Taste the Blood of Dracula on a disc in the 4 Film Favorites: Draculas collection, available here.