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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dracula, Vincent Price and Manhattan


I flew to Manhattan last week to put on an event for a client at the Roosevelt Hotel, so I made sure to have all my entertainment options available for the five-and-a-half hour flight to JFK. The iPod and MacBook Pro were charged and ready, and if they failed to amuse me, the old reliable analog solution -- a book -- was also at hand. As it turned out, the iPod and the book, "Vincent Price: The Art of Fear," served me well, because shortly before takeoff a flight attendant announced over the intercom that the video system was down and no entertainment would be shown. When I found out that the alleged entertainment was supposed to have been Adam Sandler in "Bedtime Stories," it was obvious that the video system had committed suicide.

The Price book, by the prolific Denis Meikle, made for engaging reading. It was a filmography rather than a biography, which was fine for me, because I consider Price's own daughter's published reminiscences to be the last word regarding his life. Meikle's book contained fun anecdotes such as an incident during the filming of "Dr. Phibes Rises Again" when co-star Robert Quarry (a campy actor who starred in a surprise hit for American International, "Count Yorga, Vampire," which had started life as a horror-porno film but was re-edited into a PG-rated vampire opus on the basis of his performance), who was being groomed as a replacement for the aging Price, strolled around the set singing Gershwin tunes and breezily said to Vinnie, "Didn't know I was a singer, did you, Vincent?" to which the elder star retorted, "Well, I knew you weren't a f***ing actor!"

Thursday night, still flying from the success of the event that morning, I went to the Barrymore Theatre on 47th to see "Exit the King" with Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon. I enjoyed the play, which looked very much like a traveling show from the 1800s (which I'm sure the art director intended), complete with face-bleaching footllights, tons of makeup and broad performances. Rush was terrific and Andrea Martin, as the maid, was hilarious. Sarandon acquitted herself admirably as the elder Queen, delivering the acerbic lines while sitting splayed-legged on her throne. Surprisingly, this is her Broadway debut and her first theatrical performance in 27 years.

One of the best things about seeing a Broadway show is that when you come out of the theater, slightly disoriented from the performance, you suddenly find yourself in Times Square with all its crowds, flashing lights and excitement. You think, "Oh, yeah! I'm in New York! Whoo-hoo!" But when you're as crazy about that town as I am, even walking to the neighborhood deli for a cup of coffee in the morning is a cause for rejoicing.

The flight back to L.A. was cursed. I won't say what airline I was on, but think of Fonzie's catchphrase on "Happy Days" and repeat it twice. First, I found that the headphone jack on my seat was missing. I notified a flight attendant who said, "I'll write down the seat number and they'll fix it later" (she never did). Then they announced that three of the six restrooms were out of service but rather than waiting two hours to fix them they decided to take off instead.

We still waited two hours on the tarmac. Once we were airborne, they announced that the GoGo Inflight Internet (which I had gotten a free coupon for) was not working. Finally, they informed us that the in-flight feature was about to begin: "Yes Man," with Jim Carrey, to which I cried, "Haven't we suffered enough?" Out came the MacBookPro and a DVD of "Brides of Dracula."

Reading about Price's movies and watching the hypertheatrical play the night before really put me in the mood for some classic Hammer, and "Brides" is truly the little movie that could. When Christopher Lee refused to put in the fangs for a sequel to "Horror of Dracula," the producers had to cobble together a story without him. Actually, it's not even a Dracula film, but "Brides of Meinster" just doesn't have the same zing. The loss of their star seems to have stimulated the filmmakers' creative processes, however, as this film is a kinky classic and one of the very best Hammers.

The imposing, hatchet-faced Martita Hunt has one of the greatest entrances in film history as she strolls imperiously into the inn and growls, "Wine" to the terrified innkeeper without even looking at him. She wastes no time in luring the wide-eyed French schoolteacher, Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) to her castle as a meal for her vampire son (David Peel), whom she keeps safely chained up in his rooms. Her plans go awry, though, when the Baron charms Marianne into stealing the key from his mother's room that will release him from the shackle around his ankle. Freed, he puts the bite on his own mother and sets off to commit more vampire-centric mayhem.

Peel was an unusual choice for the role. With his blond "mod" hairdo and androgynous features, he brings an air of homoeroticism to the role so strong that you wonder why he's attracted to Marianne in the first place. And in an earlier conversation with Marianne, the Baroness alludes to "parties" she and her son used to have that could easily be interpreted as omnisexual orgies. Of course, he just wants to take Marianne's hand in marriage to gain access to all the delicious young throats at the all-girl school she's been engaged to teach "French and deportment" at. I can only guess that even though they're female, that virgin blood is delicious.

Later, he really relishes putting the bite on Van Helsing (the wonderful Peter Cushing) in the only instance of male-male vamp action that I know of in the Hammer canon. Peel's eyes are strange enough, but when the bloodshot contact lenses are put in place, they look really weird.

Speaking of strange eyes, Andree Melly, who plays Marianne's roommate at the school, also has unusual features, and when she becomes vampirized she's a sight to behold. She also has one of the greatest lines in the film. Fangs bared, she entreats Marianne to give her a kiss and begs her forgiveness for "letting him love her" too. Awesome.

Freda Jackson, as the Meinster's loony housekeeper, Greta, presides over a delightfully obscene corruption of the birthing process as she lays on the ground next to a freshly dug grave, encouraging the newly-made vampire underneath the dirt to "Push, push! No, I can't help you! You have to do it yourself!"

Cushing himself has a wonderful scene with Hunt, who has been transformed into a vampire against her will and is terrified that there will be no release for her. Van Helsing says, "There is one release," which makes her smile at him hopefully. You know what that release is -- the male empowerment phallic symbol of the vampire genre -- the stake!

A great anecdote about Hunt, who was something of an eccentric free spirit in real life. During the filming, a production staffer inadvertently walked into her dressing room while she was practicing nude yoga, standing on her head, of course. Describing the incident to others later, he remarked, "Have you ever seen two fried eggs sliding down a wall?"

If you haven't seen "Brides of Dracula," run out right now and rent the DVD. Or on demand it. Or Netflix it. Or watch it on Youtube. You'll be glad you did.

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