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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mellow Giallo

Of all the genres in Weird Movie Village's universe, the giallo is one of the most compelling and often one of the goofiest. You know the drill...a line-up of semi-clad actresses/models/singers/aerobics instructors waiting to be killed, a murderer whose black-gloved hands clutching a knife are all the audience sees, tough-talking detectives working to solve the crimes and red herrings dangling everywhere. The genre's heyday was the '60s and '70s with maestro Mario Bava kicking things off in 1963 with The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

Dario Argento is responsible for perhaps the best giallo of them all...Tenebrae. If Suspiria is Argento's perfect fantasy/horror, then Tenebrae is his most magnificently realized murder mystery.

Anthony Franciosa stars as Peter Neal, an American writer visiting Rome on a promotional tour for his latest book, Tenebrae, when a rash of murders occurs mimicking the deaths in the novel. He is contacted by the police and soon finds himself embroiled in the investigation.

For viewers who have only seen Argento's "dark" films, Tenebrae may come as a surprise. It's brightly lit and color-saturated; indeed, there are many daytime scenes including the murder of Neal's agent (John Saxon). But night does fall, and Argento takes full advantage of the blackness to stage some of the film's most gruesome killings and suspense sequences. One great scene has a girl trapped between the killer and a vicious guard dog.
There's a great crane shot as the camera prowls all around a building before the murderer goes inside to kill the lesbian couple within (hilariously calling them "slimy perverts.") And when another victim gets her arm chopped off by the killer, she staggers around the kitchen a lot as blood sprays everywhere on the walls, creating a kind of sick modern art. And the surprise revelation at the end is truly a surprise. I jumped about ten feet off the couch the first time I saw it.

Tenebrae is Argento's most coherent and best-acted film, and it's also well-cast. Franciosa is great as Neal and Saxon provides able support as his tough-talking agent. Argento's love at the time, Daria Nicolodi, plays his devoted assistant, Anne, and the director even sneaks in fellow Italian horror moviemakers Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi in cameos.

Speaking of Bava, he's tried so hard to follow in his father's footsteps, but he peaked early with 1980's Macabre, a little number about a woman who keeps her dead lover's head in the refrigerator. It's a good movie, reminiscent of Polanski's Repulsion, but even more twisted.

However, Bava's resumé has otherwise been spotty. A lot of fans (and I hope readers of WMV) love the Demons series of films. They're not without their charm, but they're pretty much murder machines with a lot of special effects makeup, which I must confess is a lot of fun. And Soavi shows up again in a metal-masked cameo.

I bought A Blade in the Dark (1983) on laserdisc on the strength of Bava's name. It stars Andrea Occhipinti (the quack quack killer in Fulci's New York Ripper) as a composer who ensconces himself at a Tuscan villa while writing the score for a horror film which may hold the clue to a real killer's identity. It's a goofy movie, but not entirely objectionable in a "let's throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" kind of way. And Soavi appears again as Occhipinti's agent. It's been a while since I've seen it, but I remember that people kept dropping by his house to swim in the pool. How rude.

Giallo fans often cite Lucio Fulci's Lizard in a Woman's Skin as a favorite, but I like Don't Torture a Duckling, made in 1972. When a series of child murders breaks out in a small town, the suspects include a simpleton, a gypsy woman, a hermit and a young woman of "easy virtue." It's one of Fulci's most serious-minded films with its themes of religious hypocrisy and criticism of the Catholic church.

The setting for this film is interesting. Giallos are typically urban, but Duckling takes place in one of those little Italian villages whose church forms the center of its community and, like Tenebrae, it's very sunny.

It's also quite violent — superstitious villagers accuse the gypsy of being a witch, beating her with chains and leaving her for dead. A scene with a man falling off a cliff features loving close-ups of his face being smashed up on the rocks, a trick Fulci re-used in 1977's The Psychic. And the director pulls no punches in showing the bodies of the murdered boys.

The very intense Florinda Bolkan plays the gypsy. She was also in Lizard and the bizarre nunsploitationer Flavia the Heretic.

American gialli are a rarity, but Alfred Sole's 1976 Alice, Sweet Alice fits the category with its mystery killer and gory murders. Paula Sheppard plays Alice, a seemingly unhinged 12-year-old who is accused of murdering her younger sister (a debuting Brooke Shields). Set in 1960s New Jersey, it's packed with religious symbolism...and religious guilt.

Sole keeps the audience guessing while providing a lot to think about. His compositions are extraordinary, the murders swift and vicious, and the characters suitably bizarre. The landlord in Alice's building is the disgustingly obese and damp Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble), who tries to molest her, and practically all the other adults seem to be out of their minds.

There are some memorably violent setpieces in the film as well. When Alice's Aunt Annie (Jane Lowry) is on the staircase outside their apartment, the killer below her stabs at her feet and legs. And when a victim is clutching the killer's St. Christopher medal in his mouth to provide a post-mortem bit of evidence, his teeth are bashed in with a rock to get him to release it. I don't want to give any spoilers, because this is a slasher worth seeing.

Due to distribution troubles, Alice got thrown into public domain in the early days of home video, and has wrongly earned the reputation of an exploitation cheapie. Nothing could be further from the truth.

And, of course, killers in flesh-colored masks are extra creepy.

Now for the goofy. Today I watched 1972's The Slasher...is the Sex Maniac! starring a slumming Farley Granger (Hitchcock's Rope and Strangers on a Train), and I was rewarded with all the cheesy fun one wants in an Italian thriller from the '70s.

Granger plays a homicide detective in search of a murderer who consistently targets the wives of prominent men who are also involved in extramarital affairs. This sets the rather misogynist tone of the piece. Even Granger's cop notes about one of the widowers: "The husband is shattered. First the murder, and then he finds out his wife was a whore."

This being 1972, it's a big-time boob and butt movie, and almost all of the victims are seen frolicking with their Bee Gees lookalike boyfriends prior to their slaying. And there's always a knife wound below one of the victim's breasts so that the camera can linger upon it again and again. The score is a kind of soft jazz with the de regueur female voices singing "oohhh...ahhhh...."

There's some strange continuity, too. One victim's boyfriend leaves the house and the killer, dressed all in black with a black stocking hiding his face, appears. She screams and races outside where it's suddenly day-for-night and she's running on a beach. And even though the killer stabs at her with up-and-down motions, somehow her throat is neatly slit from ear to ear.

It's also a really smoky movie — everyone is smoking constantly. And Granger stops to stare thoughtfully at the camera for a long time (while smoking) when something is occurring to him. I don't recall seeing a film with so many actors that look like wax dummies. but they blink and move, so I guess they must be real. The women all have really elaborate '70s eye makeup and hairdos, and some of them look like drag queens. And how come when the killer telephones the police to mock them he's all dressed up in his maniac outfit and mask? It's not like they can see him!

The literal translation of the original Italian title is even more hilarious than the American title: Revelations of a Sex Maniac to the Head of the Criminal Investigation Division. And the ending is actually quite interesting. There's supposedly a XXX version with hardcore inserts which would be a very strange experience indeed.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Wretched Dark Shadows

The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaborations have fallen into four categories: near-masterworks (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands), rather good films (Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd), an interesting failure (Sleepy Hollow) and an outright disaster (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

Alas, their latest, Dark Shadows, falls firmly into the fourth slot, and is indeed such a misfire it's a puzzle why it was even made at all. Certainly the television series it's based on was no classic (although some may argue the point), but this feature adaptation is a tedious and unsatisfying mixture of mawkish camp and Burton's trademark "weirdness," which — in this case — isn't weird enough.

It begins promisingly with an 18th-century prologue in which Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) describes how he'd become a vampire by spurning the affections of a household servant, Angelique (Eva Green), who also happened to be a vengeful witch. Cursing him to immortality, she orders him buried in a silver-chained coffin where he lies trapped for nearly 200 years before being unearthed by a crew constructing a McDonald's restaurant in 1972.

Barnabas makes his way back to Collinwood, his familial estate, and meets the current generation of Collinses: Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michele Pfeiffer), her brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) and his son David (Gulliver McGrath). Also in residence is Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), the handyman/butler/caretaker, and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), a psychiatrist who'd been hired to treat the disturbed David after the tragic disappearance of his mother a few years earlier. A new arrival is Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) David's new nanny, who instantly transfixes Barnabas as she is identical in appearance to Josette, the young woman whose love had cost him his humanity two hundred years before.

The Collins family is impoverished and Collinwood has fallen into ruin, but Barnabas tells Elizabeth that he can rebuild the family's cannery business — and its fortunes — in exchange for allowing him to remain at the mansion (and remain close to Victoria). The immortal Angelique is still kicking around town, running a competing cannery, and she comes charging back into their lives for vengeance when she learns of her old flame's resurrection.

Once this not-so-original plot is set in motion, desperation sets in pretty quickly, and most of the blame must be laid at the feet of screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, who provided the story along with John August. Smith is the author of the bestselling mashup novel "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter," whose upcoming film version was produced by Burton, and it throws into doubt just how good that film is going to be, given the creatively bereft nature of this one.

Lame fish-out-of-water gags are fobbed at the audience as Barnabas misunderstands modern technology (seeing Karen Carpenter performing on television provokes him to shout, "Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!") while everyone else, puzzlingly, is more taken aback by his antiquated style of dress and manner of speaking than the fact that he is an undead vampire. There are even some truly flat-footed sex gags that are completely out of place in Burton's universe.

For his part, Burton — who should have known better — has cobbled together a tone-deaf mashup which doesn't make a lot of sense and is frankly not any fun.

A montage about 30 minutes into the film signals the point at which the writers have run out of ideas and we're going to be subjected to circuitous tedium for another hour-and-a-half: Barnabas brushing his fangs while the camera makes a circular pan to the mirror, revealing no reflection save the toothbrush — ha ha ha — the senile old maid repeatedly opening a wardrobe without noticing Barnabas sleeping in various positions inside — ha ha ha — the old maid repeatedly making up a bed without noticing Barnabas hanging upside down from the curtains above it — ha ha ha... Like a basketball that's sprung a leak, Dark Shadows loses its momentum until it's a sagging mess.

And the cast is wasted. Pfeiffer, who'd demonstrated a lovely flair for comedy in 2007's Stardust,  mostly acts annoyed here (and who wouldn't?); Moretz's hip, sullen Carolyn spends most of her time pouting and being hostile to her elders until her awful surprise! character twist; and Miller's Roger could have been played by virtually anybody. When Carter first roars onto the scene in tacky clothes and copious amounts of awful blue eyeshadow, one's hopes are temporarily raised that she's going to channel the series' original Dr. Hoffman, Grayson Hall, and deliver a big sizzling slice of ham, but unfortunately the griddle's not hot enough.

Heathcote is okay as Victoria/Josette, but like the others, once her role has been established, it doesn't have anywhere to go. And Haley, who has specialized in creepy characters since his career reboot as the child molester in 2006's Little Children, is a puzzling choice to play Willie, whose decrepit appearance is at odds with the essentially harmless nature of the wisecracking character.

Green could've been so much fun as the lusty and evil-minded Angelique, but she's let down by the "nyah-ha-ha" superficiality of the role. And Depp, who has been the go-to actor for weird characters for the last 20 years, seems committed to his performance as Barnabas but is similarly hamstrung by the lame script — and a bizarre, smooth-skinned makeup that gives him the appearance of being a wax replica of himself.

Danny Elfman's riffs on the original score are promising at the beginning, and his constant underscore in the style of '60s soap operas is fun at first, but once we get the gag, it becomes unnoticeable. The period songs seem to have been chosen simply because they're of the period. The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" is played over the opening credits, and it doesn't make any thematic sense. The Carpenters' "Top of the World" is performed during the aforementioned horrendous montage and it likewise doesn't fit.

Some of the art direction — the Liverpool prologue, the establishing shot of Collinwood — is nice, but a lot of it is ridiculous. A nighttime street scene makes the tiny town of Collinsport look  more like Greenwich Village, with a populace that appears to be a combination of hip twenty-somethings and old sea salts (including a cameo-ing Christopher Lee). When Barnabas wants to have a ball at the mansion (and yes, there's an unwelcome series of terrible "ball" jokes), Carolyn convinces him to host a "happening" with a musical performance by Alice Cooper (who Barnabas keeps referring to "Miss Cooper" and "that ugly woman"), and the film lurches into full-on Addams Family/Beetlejuice territory, making it appear that the burg's denizens, including a scene-making Andy Warhol, are as strange as the residents of the house.

And one wonders what Burton was trying to accomplish with the cinematography. It's so blown-out and blurry it's as if he was trying to replicate the look of the primitive two-inch video format that the original show's producers used in the 1960s.

Certainly, we can expect more Burton/Depp collaborations, and hopefully there will be more good ones, but Dark Shadows is an idea that should have stayed buried in its coffin. Why Burton didn't stop everything and order rewrites of the horrendous script is beyond comprehension. As it stands, it plays like a bad remake of a Tim Burton movie.




Thursday, May 17, 2012

Some unique audio-visual creations

Ever since I was a little kid, I've always been fascinated with the kind of electronic stuff that makes sound and/or pictures. My childhood memories are filled with Give-A-Show projectors, Close-n-Play record players, View Masters and other primitive entertainment devices which nevertheless sparked my young imagination.

One of the wonderful things about the Web is the ease with which you can research such ephemera and discover some surprising things along the way. Here's a stream-of-consciousness list of some unique, strange and downright ridiculous inventions that've struck my fancy...

CAR STEREO?

In 1956, Chrysler brought the first — and only — in-dash record player to the American automobile market. Dubbed the Highway Hi-Fi, it only lasted a year because of several roadblocks.

First, it required special records, so users had to buy their favorite tunes all over again in the format. Second, the Highway Hi-Fi was only available in new vehicles, not as an aftermarket item, so that slowed down adoption considerably. Finally, the device tended to break down frequently, and Chrysler didn't want to provide all that costly maintenance, since the cars were still under warranty.

How did a record play in a car without skipping all over the place, you may ask? The special Highway Hi-Fi discs moved at a slower speed than regular records and the turntable and tonearm were elaborately padded and counterweighted to prevent skating. But think of how bad the fidelity must have been. As a rule, the slower a record turns, the poorer the quality. Ever heard a 16 rpm recording?

VINYL WALKMAN

In the 1980s, the popularity of the cassette tape-based Sony Walkman gave birth to the ultra-bizarre Sound Burger from Audio Technica. Essentially a portable record player capable of playing 33 1/3 and 45 rpm discs, it worked as a spinning clamp with the tone arm affixed to its side.

You couldn't jog or even walk with the Sound Burger, however — it required a flat surface to play properly. There were no speakers but it came with the earbuds that have become so ubiquitous with the advent of iPods (and which still don't fit in my ears). It also had a built-in preamp and audio jacks so that speakers could be connected directly to it.

Surprisingly, the sound quality of the sound Burger is supposedly very good and it's coveted by collectors of strange A/V. There's one up on eBay right now.

INSTANT HOME MOVIES

Polaroid, whose instant film cameras kicked the bucket a few years ago but seem to be in the process of regeneration, attempted to get into the super 8mm filmmaking market in 1978 with Polavision, a cartridge-based system that provided instant movies. You'd put the unexposed cartridge into the camera, shoot about three minutes worth of footage and then insert it into the included TV set-style player, causing the chemicals in the cartridge to activate and the processing to commence.

The film's imagery was very dense, so the viewer was mandatory to watch the processed movies. What you got was a flickering, silent television show instead of a bright, large projection with sound that was easily available at the time if you had the patience to wait a few days for your processed film to come back from the lab.

The real nail in the coffin for Polavision, besides its clunkiness, silence and image quality, was its unfortunate introduction at the dawn of the home video age, when VHS and Beta rendered such a format completely obsolete.

HILARIOUS AUTO-CHANGE UNIT

In 1981, with the home video format wars well underway, Sony introduced a piece of equipment intended to level the playing field and address the recording time discrepancy between Beta (two and a half hours) and VHS (three hours).

Known as the Betastack, this bizarre device clamped onto the top of a normal Beta VCR, allowing it to be able to record onto four tapes sequentially. The Web site Total Rewind hilariously describes it as being a Rube Goldberg-type apparatus with whirring motors, pinging springs and mechanical fingers that push the buttons down on the VCR. Best of all, if there are already three tapes in the tray, ejecting the fourth throws the top tape onto the floor.

The Betastack was designed for only one model of VCR — the Sony SL-C7 — and it never made significant headway into the marketplace, needless to say. I'd love to see one in operation.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Movies to Hiss At

It seems it'd be pretty easy to make a horror film with a snake as the starring monster. Let's face it — most people recoil when confronted by these reptiles. They're leathery, slithering and cold-blooded, with forked tongues spiking in and out of their mouths... Oh wait — that's a Kardashian.

Snakes have figured in some of Weird Movie Village's faves, whether they're the stars or just supporting players. Ken Russell's Lair of the White Worm stars the awesome Amanda Donohoe as the slithering Lady Sylvia Marsh. The hilarious The Devil's Nightmare features a guest appearance by a snake whose hiss is dubbed by some guy who's just saying, "Ahhhhh." Hammer's The Gorgon depicts the titular character with a badly-animated head of serpents in an otherwise fun film. And the internet is directly responsible for creating a snake movie — 2006's Snakes on a Plane with Samuel L. Jackson.

Here are a couple of cold-blooded selections that have warmed the cockles of WMV's heart...

Don't say it...hiss it!

In 1973, Zanuck/Brown Productions and Universal Pictures seemed to be testing the waters — ha! — for their later blockbuster Jaws, and the result was Sssssss, an old-school B-movie which, though released theatrically, was shot TV-movie style, with a conservative budget, flat lighting and modest sets. It was released with another low-budgeter, the obscure The Boy Who Cried Werewolf, comprising one of the last double bills released by any major studio.

The incomparable Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke) plays Dr. Carl Stoner, a herpetologist whose field of expertise is big venomous snakes. He's looking for a college student to work for him as a part-time assistant, and David Blake (Battlestar Galactica's Dirk Benedict) applies for the job. Immediately, the good doctor starts David on a series of preventative immunizations that will help him to survive the bite of one of the venomous creatures in his lab.

Surprise! The shots actually consist of a serum he's synthesized to turn a man into a cobra. Stoner believes that humanity as a species has reached the end of the line, and the only way to survive is to evolve.

As the serum takes hold, David grows weaker and weaker and his skin peels off in sheets, much to the chagrin of Stoner's daughter, Kristina (Heather Menzies). Kristina's led a sheltered existence and tends to fall in love with the young men Dad hires to work in the lab. Even though she doesn't seem to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, she begins to suspect that he's up to no good.

To get her out of the way during a key stage in David's mutation, Dad sends Kristina to a nearby town to collect a rare urutu. On the way back, she stops off at a freak show where she recognizes a human/snake hybrid as one of Stoner's previous assistants (and, of course, her previous lover). Frantic, she races back home to find Stoner dead in the yard and David, now fully transformed into a cobra, battling a mongoose.

Sssssss has aged well and is a lot of old-fashioned fun. It's hilarious to see the naturally villainous Martin as the "good" doctor, especially because he hisses his lines more than the snakes do. And if he wanted the human race to survive, why didn't he work on transforming it into a heartier breed, like a cockroach? Menzies, also in The Sound of Music and the fan favorite Piranha, comes off as such a simp, and is costumed to look so awful — with a '70s mullet and John Lennon glasses — that it's a wonder Benedict is so attracted to her. Maybe he's just after Dad's snake empire.

In keeping with the newly-liberated '70s, Sssssss has some surprising male nudity (not frontal, of course) and some quaint but still-fun snake makeup. I have the 17-minute Universal 8 super 8mm digest of this film, and although it's faded almost completely to pink, it's still a hoot to watch.

The Svengoolie show on MeTV recently aired Sssssss and performed an inspired musical parody, "It's in His Hiss."

The animated GIF above features the film's obnoxious bully and snake-killer, Steve, getting his just desserts. Steve is played by Reb Brown, noted for TV's Captain America and films like Yor, Hunter of the Future and the MST3K favorite Space Mutiny.

When You Can't Breathe, You Can't Scream

The above line is actually one of the taglines for 1997's Anaconda, and I'm sure it refers to the fact that the viewer will be unable to breathe due to laughing so hard. I was inspired by a review in the L.A. Weekly to actually fork out money to see this turkey, as it was guaranteed to be bad-movie gold. I was not disappointed.

Jennifer Lopez stars (did I just say that?) as Terri Flores, a documentary filmmaker who sets out on an expedition into the Amazon in search of an elusive Indian tribe. Along for the ride are anthropologist Steve Cale (Eric Stoltz), cameraman Danny Rich (Ice Cube), sound mixer Gary Dixon (Owen Wilson), production manager Denise Kalberg (Kari Wuhrer) and narrator Warren Westridge (Jonathan Hyde).

They rescue Paul Sarone (Jon Voight) from his sinking boat, and he offers to take them to the tribe in return. Of course, his agenda turns out to be completely different — he's actually a ruthless snake-hunter in search of the legendary giant anaconda, and he quickly commandeers the boat for his own purpose, which is to bring the snake back to civilization where, I guess, he can sell it for tons o' dough. Just how he's going to transport a 40-foot snake on a passenger barge is anyone's guess, but that's part of the absurdity that makes this movie a comic gem.

The whiter-than-white, blonde-haired Voight mugs shamelessly as the supposedly Paraguayan Sarone, delivering his lines with an Inigo Montoya-style accent. Imagine hearing this hambone's description of the snake as "zee perfect killing machine. ... Eet strikes, wraps around you, holds you tighter than jore true love. And joo get the privilege of hearing jore bones break before zee power of dere embrace causes jore veins to explode." His pivotal scene arrives when — after he's been swallowed by the anaconda — he's vomited back out again and, covered in snake snot, he winks at the crew! Guess the snake couldn't swallow his performance either.

Lopez, who made this film before her breakout role in Selena, is — not surprisingly — rather stiff in the role, although the writers try to help her out with some howlers. Referring to the documentary she's working on, she says "I thought this movie would be my first big break. Instead, it's turned into a disaster." Plus, when she's confronted by a real, scary, man-eating snake instead of some boring old Amazonian tribe, she has her crew put the cameras away and stop filming!

Stoltz has the good sense to be bitten by a tropical insect early in the film and spends most of the running time below deck in a coma. Ice Cube plays Ice Cube, and Wilson, for whom this was an early role, does his "aw, shucks" routine until it's time to be eaten by the snake.

Speaking of the snake, the special effects are hilarious. The giant reptile tools along like a freight train — and it screams. And there's a scene in which it hangs from a tree and uncoils to catch a falling victim, only to spring back up again, Looney Toons-style. It's reported that the serpent effects cost a buttload of money but that doesn't keep them from being silly, especially an interior view of Voight being trundled into the anaconda's gullet.

There have been several direct-to-oblivion sequels to Anaconda, some featuring David Hasselhoff! I haven't watched any of them. Does anyone know if they're as silly as the original — or are they even intended to be?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Those Swinging '70s Vampires

The publicity drums are banging away for the May 11th release of Dark Shadows, and it's making me nostalgic for some of the vampire films of the 1970s. Just as the "love generation" of the previous decade was fading into the sunset, and disco — with its attendant horrible fashions — was on the horizon, vampire films were also breathing their last gasp for a while.

Hammer Films was also getting ready to pack it in. Its last period-piece classic, Vampire Circus, was released in 1971 by 20th Century Fox, heavily cut in America for a PG rating, which was pointless, because the excised perversion was what the movie was all about! As sapphic vamp films go, the 1970 Ingrid Pitt starrer The Vampire Lovers isn't bad, but 1971's Twins of Evil is ridiculous. And the less said about Allan Gibson's Dracula updates — Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula — the better.

The original Dark Shadows series starring the recently departed Jonathan Frid has its devoted followers, but that's a cult I don't really understand. I was just a little kid when it was on, but I still remember watching Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman and thinking, "Jesus, this woman is a hambone." I kept waiting for the creepy stuff to happen, but it was a lo-o-o-o-ng wait.

Much better were the movies. They had much more vampire activity and lots of gore (for the time). The first, House of Dark Shadows, starred most of the cast, including Hall and Frid, and plays like a faster, gorier version of the series.

The image that sticks in my mind in House is Barnabas getting really, really old (thanks to jealous Dr. Hoffman) and trying desperately to get some blood to reverse the process. Makeup artist Dick Smith (who also did The Exorcist) re-used the bald head appliance he made for Dustin Hoffman in 1970's Little Big Man on Frid. To restore his youth, he goes to Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and puts the bite on her. Enjoy Hall's hilarious emoting and the humorous makeup on Frid here:






I remember going to the good old Avon Art Theater (which, despite the highfalutin' name, served as my hometown South Bend's exploitation/trash house during the 1970s) to see Robert Quarry as Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Even today, it's surprising that this American International pickup got a GP (the predecessor to PG) rating, as it's pretty sleazy. Originally conceived as a softcore porn film, it still has aspects of its original, dirtier self. There's at least one inexplicit but extended sex scene and women are running around in see-through blouses with their nipples a-poppin'.

Interestingly, the scene most everyone still talks about is the one in which the recently-vampirized chick is caught eating a kitten. Allegedly this scene was heavily trimmed to get the lower rating so that you could barely see what was going on, but maybe I saw a less brutally cut print, because I certainly remember the shock scene quite clearly, emphasized by the sickly green low-budget cinematography.

The Return of Count Yorga arrived in 1971, followed by The Deathmaster the following year. Neither one is very good, but the wise folks at American International decided to refer to Yorga as the deathmaster in the first film, making it confusing to audiences which film was which. But it didn't really matter — neither one had the sleazy charm of the first Yorga.

American International also made sure the blaxploitation circuit was served with 1972's Blacula, starring the elegant William Marshall as Mamuwalde, an African prince resurrected in (then) present-day Los Angeles to encounter all manner of jive-talking stereotypes. 1973's indifferent sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, also features the awesome Pam Grier. It's a tragedy that AIP didn't hire writer/director Jack Hill — the king of exploitation and blaxploitation — to oversee these films. They'd have been so much better...maybe even classics.

More serious-minded was 1973's Ganja and Hess, starring Night of the Living Dead's Duane Jones as a scientist who becomes infected with an insatiable need for human blood. Considered a rare example of '70s African-American art cinema, it owes more to Buñuel than Blacula.

Another arty vampire flick from 1973 was Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural starring cult fave Cheryl (Rainbeaux) Smith as the title character, a backwoods girl who runs afoul of a pack of bloodsuckers, one of whom (Leslie Gibb) wants to get to know her a whole lot better. Dismissed upon its original release, the film was rediscovered in the '90s and now has a cult following, especially after the untimely demise of Smith in 2002.

1971's Daughters of Darkness, starring Last Year At Marienbad's Delphine Seyrig, brought Euro arthouse eroticism to the forefront. She plays a mysterious, Dietrich-style countess who seduces a pair of young travelers in an eerie coastal hotel. Seyrig is a striking bloodsucker and it's easy to see why both Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) are so easily swayed.

Those who remember Karlen as Tyne Daly's bearish husband in "Cagney and Lacey" will be shocked to see how young and well-built he is in this film. Though not explicitly gory, it's got some Eurostyle nudity and a great vampire death-by-shower scene.

Bob (A Christmas Story) Clark and scripter Alan Ormsby blended the short story "The Monkey's Paw" with a Vietnam war protest to make 1974's Dead of Night, aka Deathdream, about a soldier, Andy (Richard Backus), who's killed in action but whose mother wishes for him to come back to her. He does, and his elated parents think the reports of his death had been a clerical error, but actually dead and must feed on human blood to stave off the decaying process. Andy spends his days brooding in his room, refusing to see friends and relatives and only going out at night, behavior his parents write off as battle shock. But they soon realize there's something even more terrifying wrong with their son.

Clark and Ormsby had previously made the cheap and overrated zombie comedy Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, so it's surprising that this grim, sober and effective little shocker would come from them. It manages to be both eerie and tragic and still has an emotional heft today. When it was shown on KHJ's Movie Macabre in 1982, Elvira's puns and interruptions seemed terribly out of place.

Of course, there was time for vampire comedy before the '70s wound down. David Niven appeared in 1975's Old Dracula, a dreadful spoof whose original title — Vampira — was altered by hopeful distributors praying that fans of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein would race to the boxoffice. They didn't.

1979's Love at First Bite was more successful. George Hamilton is fine as the Lugosi-style vampire who travels from his native Transylvania to New York to find his bride, but Arte Johnson is a big slice of ham as his devoted assistant, and Susan Saint James, channeling Margot Kidder's Lois Lane in the previous year's Superman, is annoying. However, if I was forced to choose, I'd definitely prefer to sit through this than Brook's 1995 disaster Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

So which camp will Burton's Shadows reboot fall into — brilliant black comedy or awful spoof? I'll find out on May 18th, at which time I'll post my review.


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