Rigor Mortis Director Juno Mak – The CFQ Interview

Chin Siu-Ho discovers that urban renewal ain't all it's cracked up to be in RIGOR MORTIS
Chin Siu-Ho discovers that urban renewal ain't all it's cracked up to be in RIGOR MORTIS

Even in the anything-to-get-your-adrenaline-pumping world of Hong Kong cinema, RIGOR MORTIS stands out. The story of a famous actor, Chin Siu-Ho (played by actual famous actor Chin Siu-Ho — your heard us), who has to contend with a seedy apartment building whose walls reverberate with echoes of his most famous film, the hopping vampire horror-comedy MR. VAMPIRE — including mysterious spirits, a mystical warrior-cum-resterateur (played by MR. VAMPIRE cast-mate Anthony “Friend” Chan), and, yes, a hopping vampire — the film plays as both a tribute to, and a dark and dizzyingly intense reimagining of, a beloved sub-genre. Director Juno Mak makes his feature film debut with this visually stunning, shockingly violent, and at times surprisingly moving, effort, and we were eager to discuss the roots of the project in the legendary MR. VAMPIRE franchise, and the challenges of creating this effects-laden feast. Click on the player to hear the show.

Santo vs. Las Mujeras Vampiro (1962) review

santo_vs_vampire_women_poster_01It’s a wrestling movie! It’s a vampire movie! It’s two movies randomly cut together!

Some movies defy expectations, good or bad, in a way that makes them surprising enough to be interesting.  SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO (1962, dubbed into English as SAMSON VS THE VAMPIRE WOMEN) certainly qualifies. Half masked wrestler movie, half vampire movie, this Mexican import is such a jumble of conflicting elements that the absurdity becomes quite entertaining. Which is not to say the entertainment value is entirely camp in nature; one surprise in store for interested viewers is that SANTO VS LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO is, at times, an effective horror film. Though it will never be regarded as a classic, the film’s recent availability on Hulu, in its original, Spanish-language form, offers a welcome opportunity for a new appraisal.
If you are reading this, you probably know that Santo (actual name: Rodolfo Guzman Huerta) was a real-life Mexican wrestler whose gimmick was that he never appeared in public without his signature silver mask. In the 1950s the character became a superhero in a series of comic books, which eventually lead to several films, such as SANTO VS THE ZOMBIES (1961).
With that history, you might expect SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO to be a second-rate hack job designed to showcase its star at the expense of everything else. However, much as with the recent GODZILLA (2014), Santo remains somewhat in the background of this film, which focuses instead on the Vampire Women and their plan to kidnap a young woman, Diana Orlof (Maria Duval) to replace their Vampire Queen, Thorina (Lorena Velazquez).
Consequently, for the first half-hour or so SANTO VS. LAS MUERAS VAMPIRO plays like a traditional, old-fashioned horror film, hokey but atmospheric, with lovely black-and-white photography showcasing the sinister sets. There is little innovative here – the film is clearly aping the classic Universal Pictures horror films of the 1930s and 1940s – but there is enough local Mexican flavor to spice the proceedings up a bit.

The Vampire Priestess in hag form, from the film's atmospheric opening.
The Vampire Priestess in hag form, from the film's atmospheric opening.

In particular, the opening sequence, mostly silent, with the camera wandering through an old mansion, is wonderfully evocative, revealing the Vampire Women emerging from their coffins as old hags, before transforming into supernatural seductresses. The slow and stately pace may lay the atmosphere on a bit thick, but the imagery is almost good enough to stand beside the best Italian horror films of the period. One might even call it “Bava-esque” – though not quite on par with BLACK SUNDAY, nor does it fall embarrassingly short, instead standing on its own as enjoyably spooky horror, served up straight, without the camp.
After that, the plot kicks in, and things get weird, which is definitely fun but also quite a bit goofier than what the opening would lead you to expect.

THE PLOT

First off, the Vampire Women have not only a Queen but also a Priestess, Tandra (Ofelia Montesco). Why there should be two leaders is a question the screenwriters really do not bother to answer; instead, we get to see lots of shots of the two vixens standing around in curvaceous white gowns, slit to the hip, while we have time to ponder which is the more alluring of the two (answer: the Queen!).

Queen Thorina (Lorena Velazquez, seated) presides over the Vampire Women, including Priestess Tandra (Ofelia Montesco, with chalice).
Queen Thorina (Lorena Velazquez, seated) presides over the Vampire Women, including Priestess Tandra (Ofelia Montesco, with chalice).

The convoluted premise is that after a 200 year hibernation, the Vampire Women are rising from their coffins to find a replacement for Thorina, so that she can descend into Hell to join her betrothed, the Devil himself (who makes a cameo appearance or two – a horned shadow cast on the wall).  The last time the vampires tried this, they were thwarted by a masked hero (presumably an ancestor of Santo); apparently, frustration over their failure sent them into a two-century slumber. Or perhaps we are to assume that the vampire life cycle consists of resurrecting every 200 years to find a new Queen and then immediately returning to their coffins for another 200 years? Whatever…
Professor Orloff, Diana’s father (played by Augusto Benedico) is an academic who has deciphered just enough ancient hieroglyphics to know that his daughter is to be targeted on her 21st birthday, which is rapidly approaching. Although he manages to enlist the aid of the police, but troubled by their skepticism about the nature of the threat (they don’t believe in vampires), he also seeks help from Santo for help. I guess Orloff doesn’t believe in keeping all his eggs in one basket. In a delightfully absurd conceit, Orloff has an electronic gizmo in his study that acts as a direct-line videophone to Santo’s lair – his equivalent of the bat cave – which we briefly glimpse when Orloff calls for assistance. Unfortunately, Santo is not home – a recurring them of the movie.
Meanwhile, the Vampire Women are seeking blood, and making moves on tracking down Dianna. In this, they are aided by a trio of vampire henchmen, portrayed by bare-chested wrestlers wearing capes (because any vampire worthy of the term wore a cape back in these days). Fashion sense aside, the henchmen come across more like conventional thugs than supernatural threats from beyond the grave, but they get the job done, more or less.
We finally get to see Santo in an extended wrestling sequence, and by extended, I mean one that will have you reaching for the fast-forward button like Han Solo pressing the warp speed drive button to outrun the Empire. The gratuitous and obligatory nature of the scene is exceeded only by the baffling notion that Santo, a superhero capable of battling the undead with relative ease, has a rather hard time dispatching a mortal opponent in the ring.
Eventually, Santo puts his wrestling career on hold long enough to engage with the plot of the film in which he is allegedly starring, and the action moves along well enough from there, though it sometimes plays more like a conventional crime movie: in the grand tradition of movie villainy, Priest Tandra repeatedly tries and fails to kidnap Diana; Queen Thorina berates her but gives her one more chance; and eventually, Tandra succeeds.
Amusingly, part of the reason for Tandra’s eventual success is that Santo is back in the ring: during an ill-conceived attempt to use Diana as bait (which ultimately results in her being kidnapped), police chief recalls casually notes that Santo is busy wrestling; he seems not the least nonplussed that the superhero prioritizes his fight career over guarding an innocent victim from blood-drinking hell-spawn. Fortunately for Santo, he does end up confronting the vampires, who seems to consider him a threat despite his frequently being AWOL: one of the vampire henchmen sneaks into the arena before the match, kills Santo’s opponent in the opponent’s dressing room, and puts on his mask, then fights Santo in the ring. (Why not skip a step and try to kill Santo in his dressing room? Don’t ask.)
Santo vs the Vampire Women: werewolf wrestlerI’m not sure this second wrestling match is any more exciting than the previous one, but at least it merges the two elements that the film has so far kept isolated from each other: vampires and wrestling. Santo has a pretty rough time of it (though not particularly rougher than when he was fighting humans), eventually unmasking his opponent to reveal…a werewolf!
WTF? The briefly scene, face-only makeup is the only hint that this henchmen is anything other than a vampire; the revelation is completely pointless except as a visual shock – and almost immediately forgotten. As Santo and the police swarm over the “werewolf,” they find themselves gripping empty air; the culprit escapes in the form of a bat, flapping away to safety.
Or not so much. Santo pursue in his sports car (it’s not the Batmobile, but it does have an invisible camera mounted on the hood – or at least we have to believe so, because Professor Orloff is able to view and speak with Santo via his videophone contraption). The vampire muscleman runs down the street, grasping his cape like wings, as if he cannot quite achieve liftoff in bat from, and comes up short when he finds himself face to face with a large cross, which reduces him to ashes.
This scene underlines another odd point about SANTO VS LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO: Santo does not do much to dispatch the vampires, who instead fall prey to their own miscalculations. More of this will follow in the climax.
Anyway, Professor Orloff finally deciphers more ancient writings and learns where the Vampire Woman have taken his daughter: to a miniature castle on the outskirts of the city. (It’s actually a mansion rather than a castle, but it has a dungeon, so there. And it’s not such a bad miniature really, but it looked better when it was partially hidden beneath the opening credits.) Santo races over and is immediately captured. Tandra begins the ritual to vampirize Diana into the new queen, but the rising sun peeks through a window and ignites the vampire priestess.
That’s right: Santo doesn’t save the day; the sun does. Giving our masked hero the benefit of the doubt, we can perhaps credit his intrusion for delaying Tandra and distracting her from the approaching dawn (she wastes time ordering her henchmen to unmask Santo instead of completing the ritual to turn Diana into the new vampire queen), but this is being overly charitable. Santo does manage to break free of some chains and fight the two remaining vampire thugs, but all he does is knock them down. Like Tandra, they burst into flames as if touched by the sun – thought the lighting of the scene is a bit sketchy about showing exactly which parts of the dungeon set are illuminated by sunbeams.
Santo vs Las Mujeras Vampiro 1962 burning coffinsThe remaining Vampire Women relapse into their hag-like appearance and retreat to their coffins, where Santo finally does something tangible, igniting their undead bodies with a torch (like George Romero’s ghouls a six years later in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, they “go up pretty good”). Curiously, the women seem so helpless at this point that Santo’s action seems more appalling than heroic.
And that’s about it. The police and Professor Orloff arrive too late to lend assistance. Santo delivers Diana to her father (not to her ineffectual fiance, who has been standing on the sidelines the whole movie) and drives off like the Lone Ranger, while the professor delivers a heartfelt paean of admiration to the masked hero.

COMMENTS

SANTA VS LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO cannot be taken seriously, but it is fun. Although the vampire henchmen are goofy at best, their female overlords cut a striking figure, particularly the regal queen. Pitting seductive female blood-suckers against the uber-macho Santo represents conservative gender politics taken to their nth degree, but it’s amusing to see that the wily women are almost a match for the masked wrestler.
Along the way, there are some interesting variations on vampire lore. For example, these vampires do cast reflections, but the mirror reveals their true countenances – ancient hags hiding beneath the illusion of young flesh.

Santo searches for the Vampire Women
Santo searches for the Vampire Women

Santo himself is an odd superhero, to say the least. He’s strong, but he doesn’t have any particular superpowers. He can survive vicious beatings delivered by the undead, yet he is unable to easily overwhelm human opponents in the wrestling ring. He’s also rather stocky and beefy – a far cry from the muscled physique of an archetypal Frank Frazetta protagonist. Presumably he has a secret identify, but the film never reveals it, nor even address it; we simply assume he runs around in that silver mask all day, alternating between wrestling and crime-fighting. And as mentioned above, he has a real problem with prioritizing these two activities.
The production is a bit hit-and-miss. The sets and photography establish atmosphere worthy of a classic film, and some of the special effects work well enough (such as the simple lap dissolves to transform vampires into flaming heaps), but the flying bats are typical for the time – obvious props swung on wires. Also, the editing makes occasional missteps, such as having different scenes reuse the same closeup of Tandra eyeing her target from outside a window (you don’t even need to be an anal-retentive DVD-rewinder to notice this one).
Whatever its flaws, SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO is seldom boring (except for the wrestling scenes). Fans of Mexican horror and/or wrestling consider this one of Santo’s best on-screen efforts, and even more general old-school monster movie aficionados should have a good time.

HOW TO WATCH

Priestess Tandra awakens her muscle-bound vampire-henchmen.
Priestess Tandra awakens her muscle-bound vampire-henchmen.

Long available in the U.S. only in a badly dubbed English-language version, SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO can now be seen in its original Spanish-language version on Hulu Plus. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles (this is part of the new Hulu Latino programming, intended for Spanish-speaking audiences); fortunately, you can probably follow most of the plot if you took high-school Spanish. If your language skills are not up to par, do what I did: run the Hulu version in synch with one of the English-language versions on YouTube. There are no editorial differences between the two, so the run times are virtually the same.
Why not just watch the English-language version? Because the picture quality of the Spanish-language version is pristine, highlighting the atmospheric detail that is the film’s main strength. Also, as weird as it may seem, hearing the original Spanish voices in the background helps distract from poor quality of the English dubbing, for which the voice actors seemed most concerned with spitting the dialogue out in time with the the lip movements, not with giving a dramatic performance.
If you do not subscribe to Hulu Plus, you will not be able to view SANTO VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN through your Roku box on your widescreen high-def television. Fortunately, the film is also available for free viewing on your computer through Hulu.com, and it is on YouTube as well. Picture quality is not bad as long as you watch in small size on your computer; nevertheless, HuluPlus is the preferred method.
The sound-booth quality of the English dub, along with the faded, pockmarked picture quality, renders SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN in terms that make it almost impossible to regard as anything more than a piece of junk, a campy artifact of a bygone age, worthy only of derision. Though the original Spanish cast were never going to win any awards, their dialogue delivery at least sounds appropriate and in-character; the superior soundtrack and image raise SANTO VS. LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO to a level of watchability that allows viewers to enjoy the strengths without being overwhelmed by the absurdities (which are enjoyable in their own way).
If you would rather watch the English-language SAMSON VS THE VAMPIRE WOMEN, you might as well check out the version that appeared on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, which is also available, free, on YouTube.
Santo Vs. Las Mujeras Vampiro (1962) poster
SANTO VS LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO (“Santo vs the Vampire Women,” 1962). Alternate titles: SANTO CONTRA LAS MUJERAS VAMPIRO, SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN. 89 minutes. Unrated. Black and white. Directed by Alfonso Corona Blake. Produced by Alberto Lopez. Written by Rafael Garcia Travesi; story by Antonio Orellana & Fernando Oses and Rafael Garcia Travesi; screenplay consultant, Alfonso Coronoa Blake. Cast: Santo, Lorena Velazquez, Maria Duval, Jaime Fernandez, Augusto Benedico, Xavier Loya, Ofelia Montesco, Fernando Oses, Guillermo Hernandez, Nathaneal Leon. Caernario Galindo, Ray Mendoza, Alejandro Cruz, Bobby Bonales.
[serialposts]

Dan Curtis' Dracula on Blu-ray – review

Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store.
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store.

Bram Stoker’s immortal vampire rises again, this time on Blu-ray, a format that – appropriately enough -preserves the youthful veneer of this 1973 production, making it look as good as (if not better than) it did four decades ago. Like Dracula himself, MPI’s new disc will no doubt endure, intact and ageless, for centuries to come, emerging regularly from its box like the Vampire King rising from his coffin at sunset.
DAN CURTIS’ DRACULA (also known as BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA or simply DRACULA) is not the greatest adaptation of the classic novel, but it infuses some new blood into an old corpse drained of life by myriad prior film incarnations. This DRACULA features a strong central performance, atmospheric locations, and some enjoyably scary but not too gruesome moments of horror. However, the film’s greatest claim to historical significance is its (for the time) novel take on the titular character, which went on to influence later interpretations.

THE FILM: BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA

The fourth major adaptation of the classic novel*, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (the on-screen title) begins by acknowledging audience familiarity with the tale, opening with shots of wolves (actually German Shepherds) amassing outside Castle Dracula, while the Count walks through a corridor toward the camera, like Norma Desmond ready for her closeup. “We know you know who this is,” the film seems to be saying, “so we’re not going toy with presenting him as a mysterious figure, and we’re not going to tease you with a long wait for what you obviously expect to see.”
After that Richard Matheson’s script settles into the familiar story, but only up to a point. Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown) arrives in Transylvania to arrange a real estate deal with Dracula (Jack Palance). However, the Count has ulterior motives: Harker finds a newspaper photo with a woman’s face circled. The woman is Lucy (Fiona Lewis), whom Dracula believes to be the reincarnation of a woman he loved during his mortal life. She also turns out to be the best friend of Harker’s finace, Mina (Penelope Horner).
After concluding his business with Harker , Dracula leaves the young man to the tender mercies of three vampire women (Virginia Wetherell, Barbar Lindley, Sarah Douglas) and heads to England, where he finds Lucy. Her finance, Arthur Holmwood, consults Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport), who spots the signs of vampirism – though too late to save the victim. After Lucy rises from the grave, Van Helsing and Holmwood stake her in her coffin.
Arriving in her tomb for the expected reunion with his long-lost love, Dracula is enraged to find her undead life snuffed out. He targets Mina next, but the vampire hunters manage to track down the coffins he needs to sleep during the daylight hours; robbed of his refuge, Dracula retreats to Transylvania, with Van Helsing, Holmwood, and Mina in pursuit. The two men stake the Count’s vampire brides in their coffins and confront Dracula himself in a life-or-death battle that ends with Van Helsing tearing down a set of curtains, allowing sunlight to steam inside, incapacitating the monster, who is then dispatched with a spear through the heart.

In flashback, Dracula (Jack Palance) is seen with the woman he loved (Fiona Lewis).
In flashback, Dracula (Jack Palance) is seen with the woman he loved (Fiona Lewis).

Back in 1974, when BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA first aired on American television, portraying the Count with a measure of sympathy was innovative and surprising; something so simple as a flashback or two to his days of mortal life was enough to suggest a whole new perspective on the familiar character. Dracula was no longer simply a monster; he had human emotions!
In this, the film was enormously aided by Palance. If you prefer your vampires in traditional Gothic mode, then Palance’s Dracula is for you: the actor registers such powerful screen presence that you feel he could single-handedly dispatch the entire cast of TWILIGHT’s glittering vampire-wimps. Though hardly Continental (the actor avoids affecting a Lugosi-style Hungarian accent), Palance conveys not only the enormous power of the King Vampire (who seems threatening even when he’s not actually doing anything) but also Dracula’s sense of love and loss. He effectively modulates the shifts from fierce to pained to tortured, and you almost feel for him. Almost.
The problem is that BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA does not have the screen time or the focus to completely humanize the Count. The reincarnation plot is clearly derived from Curtis’ own Gothic soap opera DARK SHADOWS (in which vampire Barnabas Collins sought the reincarnation of his lost Josette), but the TV series had the luxury of months of daily episodes to gradually transform Barnabas from predatory villain to doomed anti-hero. Here, we get only a few minutes of flashbacks, which are at odds with the rest of the story.
In attempting to condense Stoker’s lengthy tale while simultaneously introducing new elements, Matheson set himself a near impossible task. It’s great to see several of Stoker’s previously omitted scenes finally transferred to the screen: wolves escort Dracula’s carriage in Transylvania; Dracula uses a lone wolf, liberated from a zoo, to attack Holmwood in a room protected protected from vampires by crucifixes and garlic; Dracula forces Mina to drink blood from an open wound in his chest, tainting her to become a vampire whether or not see dies by his bite. However, some of the novel’s best moments are reduced to almost nothing (Dracula’s vampire brides – a highlight of the novel- barely register), and some of the familiar action fits awkwardly into the new context, which muddles the character’s behavior.
Dracula reacts to the second death of his lost love.
Dracula reacts to the second death of his lost love.

For example, with Jonathan (literally) out of the picture, Mina’s only connection to the vampire hunters is through her friendship with Lucy, so she has no clear reason to stay involved after Lucy’s death. Nevertheless, she remains, living with Holmwood and Van Helsing in Lucy’s house, apparently (though not expressly) with the permission of Lucy’s mother (who is never told what killed her daughter). One wonders why Mina does not return home or (better yet) lift a finger to figure out what happened to Jonathan. The answer is that the script needs to keep her close by, so that she can become Dracula’s second English victim – a development that now seems like an arbitrary remnant of the novel. (In the revised scenario, Dracula is presumably seeking revenge for Lucy’s destruction, but that would have made more sense had the characters been rewritten so that Mina was Holmwood’s fiance – suggesting that Dracula is taking Holmwood’s woman in exchange for Holmwood’s killing Dracula’s great love.)
Consequently, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA feels like a familiar old puzzle with a few new pieces tossed in – they’re pleasantly surprising, but they don’t quite fit. And speaking of things that do not fit: this film not only tells us that Dracula was once a sensitive, loving human being; it also tells us that the vampire was, in life, Vlad Tsepes, a true-life historical figure known for cruelly impaling his victims on large, painful wooden stakes inserted in the anus – a contradiction the script never attempts to resolve.
Visually, the film belies its made-for-TV origins, with impressive lensing and production values. Dating from an era when most tele-films were point-and-shoot affairs with bland, over-lit photography, this DRACULA looks as good as a theatrical feature from the era. The location shooting enhances the proceedings enormously, lending an authentic European flavor missing from previous versions of the tale (though the interior of Dracula’s abode sometimes looks more like a mansion than a castle).
Dan Curtis knew how to deliver the genre elements a film like this needed, but his strength was more as a producer than a director. At times, he tried too hard to be clever and cinematic, when a more confident director would have let the scene play without the bells and whistles (typical for the era, the zoom lens is used and over-used, like an explanation point dropped by a writer juicing up a line of prose). At other times, Curtis could let a scene fall flat, such as the Mexican Stand-Off during which Van Helsing and Holmwood use crosses to hold Dracula at bay but let him walk out the door for fear of confronting him directly. (You want to yell, “Don’t stand there – do something!”)
When it came to staging action, Curtis could rise to the occasion and deliver effective moments of shock and horror: Dracula’s first encounter with Lucy is emotionally charged – creepy and seductive; the later revelation of her dead body, still beautiful but pale and blue, like a broken doll, is evocative and disturbing. Within the constraints of network television censorship, Curtis spruced up the narrative with bursts of violence that show how overpowering Dracula is compared to mere mortals, emulating but not quite capturing the full-blooded excitement of HORROR OF DRACULA (1958, from which several ideas were clearly borrowed).
Curtis Dracula Palance Ward sunlight
Dracula's attack on Holmwood (Simon Ward) is interrupted by sunlight.

Such borrowings occasionally lend an almost off-the-rack quality to the scenes, though viewers without an encyclopedic knowledge of vampire cinema are not likely to notice or care. For example:

  1. As noted, the vampire romance is borrowed from DARK SHADOWS (there’s even a music box that plays a love them, scored by SHADOWS composer Bob Corbett).
  2. Dracula tosses someone out a window, as vampire Janos Skorzeny did in THE NIGHT STALKER, a previous Curtis production. (This scene became something of a recurring motif for Curtis – check out BURNT OFFERINGS for another example).
  3. Jonathan Harker never makes it out of Dracula’s castle, and Dracula is bound by physical limitations, unable to transform into a bat or mist – both element derived from HORROR OF DRACUULA.
  4. Dracula seeks a woman whose photograph he has seen – an element in NOSFERATU and HORROR OF DRACULA.
  5. Van Helsing defeats Dracula by tearing down curtains to reveal sunlight. This is taken from HORROR OF DRACULA by way of THE NIGHT STALKER.

The supporting cast fares less well than Palance. Lewis comes off best, emerging as one of Dracula’s most beautiful and alluring victims; unfortunately, she is given little screen time to register the transformation from innocent human to wanton vampire. Ward is an appealing screen presence, but his character has no distinguishing characteristics, nor an emotional journey worth following. Davenport turns Van Helsing into a methodical medical practitioner, without the commanding presence of Edward Van Sloan or the zeal of Peter Cushing. This may be a deliberate choice (an exchange of closeups, before Van Helsing delivers the fatal blow to Dracula, suggests we are supposed to relate to the tragic vampire rather than the heartless hunter), but it leaves the film without a strong protagonist. Horner’s Mina is not the surprisingly smart and capable woman of the book; in fact, she is not much of anything.
Seen in the purifying light of day, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA is, like much of the producer-director’s work, an unapologetic horror film, eager to embrace genre conventions and deliver familiar elements that appeal to fans. Though no match for DRACULA (1931) with Bela Lugosi, nor HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) with Christopher Lee, the Curtis production is an interesting variation on the tale, bristling with more energy than COUNT DRACULA (1977), the talky public-television version starring Louis Jordan. And for horror historians, the Dan Curtis DRACULA represents an important evolutionary step in the portrayal of the character on screen, retaining the supernatural menace but adding a layer of humanity and romance that would become a bigger part of the character in later versions.

THE BLU-RAY: DAN CURTIS’ DRACULA

You didn't see this on television in 1974!
You didn't see this on television in 1974!

MPI’s Blu-ray disc (featuring the title DAN CURTIS’ DRACULA on the box art) presents the film’s theatrical cut in widescreen format, with options for English, Spanish, and French 2.0 soundtracks, along with optional English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing. The theatrical version is slightly gorier than the original broadcast version (all the vampires cough up blood when they die). Also, the tell-tale signs of the film’s television origin (e.g., blackouts for commercial interruptions) are missing, creating a more theatrical viewing experience.
The picture looks great on modern high-def televisions. There is a slight trace of grain (this was shot on film, after all), but the muted colors are lovely (lots of red backgrounds and that peculiar orange that passed for blood in those days). Though the film dates from the era of television screens with a 1.33 aspect ratio, the image looks perfect when cropped to today’s 1.78 aspect ratio (perhaps because the action was framed to work on wider theatre screens).
Bonus features include interviews with Palance and Curtis, Outtakes, Television Cuts, and a British theatrical trailer.
Outtakes offers raw camera footage, minus the on-set set sound, accompanied by music. These are mostly different takes, or slightly longer versions, of footage seen in the film, sometimes withe the crew and slates visible. Though not a blooper reel, there are one or two moments when an actor cracks a smile, as Lewis does after her gasping reaction to being staked.
Television Cuts presents alternate, blood-free takes from the broadcast version. These are limited to a few closeups the death throes of the vampires, who merely gasp when staked, instead of coughing up blood as in the theatrical version.
The Theatrical Trailer is a bit scratched and grainy (which perhaps helps us better appreciate the preserved picture quality of the film itself). EMI, the British distributor, sold the film (under the title BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA) as a bold horror movie, a la Hammer Films Dracula efforts, but also noted the romantic aspect.
The most interesting bonus features are the Interviews. Jack Palance discusses his approach to the character, saying that he did not play Dracula as a villain because that’s not how the character would see himself. Curtis talks about adapting the book, which he says “makes no sense” because Stoker never explains why Dracula leaves Transylvania for England; hence, Curtis decided to “rip-off” the reincarnation story line from DARK SHADOWS, in order to provide the missing motivation. (This explanation was apparently the approved party-line on the subject: Richard Matheson used almost the exact same words when I asked him about his script decades ago.)
[rating=3]
Worth a sanguinary midnight sip.

TRIVIA

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA was scheduled to make its debut on American television in October 1973; however, the broadcast was preempted by President Richard Nixon’s address regarding the resignation of Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew. The film eventually premiered in Feburary 1974.

British poster for the Dan Curtis production of (Bram Stoker's) DRACULA.
British poster for the Dan Curtis production of (Bram Stoker's) DRACULA.

Originally billed and advertised simply as DRACULA, the film later came to be known as BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, to distinguish it from previous versions. The posters and on-screen title cards confused the issue with graphics that conflated the star’s credit with the title and emphasized the character’s name at the expense of the author’s:

JACK PALANCE
as
BRAM STOKER’S
DRACULA
The word “Dracula” is in larger, bolder letters, suggesting that is the true title; Stoker’s name appears to have been included as a way of acknowledging the film’s literary debt to his novel, which is not otherwise credited as the source material for Matheson’s screenplay. The trailer for the subsequent overseas theatrical release adopted the full title, although the British poster, like the on-screen credit, emphasized “DRACULA,” with “Bram Stoker” in smaller type and lower-case letters.

Years later, home video releases also used the BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA moniker. However, since Francis Ford Coppola’s film of the same name, the 1973 production has been sold as “Dan Curtis’ DRACULA” on DVD and Blu-ray (though the on-screen title-credit remains the same).

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Coppola version of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) contains two notable similarities to the Dan Curtis production. First, like Matheson before him, James V. Hart’s screenplay identifies the fictional Count Dracula with his historical namesake, Vlad Tsepes, also known as Dracula (i.e., the Son of the Dragon, thanks to his father’s membership in the Order of the Dragon). Second, Dracula (played by Gary Oldman in the Coppola film) is also seeking the reincarnation of his lost love.

The reincarnation plot line, previously used by Curtis in DARK SHADOWS, has no precedent in Stoker’s novel. However, it can be traced to Universal Pictures’ THE MUMMY (1932), which deliberately recycles many elements from the studio’s earlier hit, DRACULA. Curiously, the Dan Curtis DRACULA is a bit vague about whether Lucy really is Dracula’s lover reborn. She looks the same but never expresses any recognition, even when she is falling under the vampire’s spell; also, when she rises as a vampire, she heads not to the Count but to her fiance, suggesting she does not reciprocate Dracula’s centuries-old passion.

FOOTNOTE:

  • After NOSFERATU (1922), DRACULA (1931), and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).

DAN CURTIS’ DRACULA (Blu-ray title, released May 27, 2014 by MPI). Also known as: DRACULA and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (copyright date, 1973; original air date: February 8, 1974). 100 mins. Made for Television. Produced and directed by Dan Curtis. Written by Richard Matheson, based on the novel by Bram Stoker (uncredited). Cast: Jack Palance, Simon Ward, Nigel Davenport, Pamela Brown, Fiona Lewis, Penelope Horner, Murray Brown. Virginia Wetherell, Barbara Lindley, Sarah Douglas.

In Your Eyes; Deadbeat; Devil Doll – Dossier Fantastique 5:17.2

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Dossier Fantastique Volume 5, Number 17.2 opens to reveal capsule comments for IN YOUR EYES and DEADBEAT. The former is a Direct-to-Video film written and produced by Joss Whedon, about a man and a woman on opposite sides of the country who share a psychic link; the latter is a new Hulu original television series, about a sorry excuse for a human being who “helps ghosts” but “can’t help himself.” After that, the Cinefantastique Podcasting crew of Lawrence French, Dan Persons, and Steve Biodrowski delve into the details of this week’s home video release, for Tuesday, April 30 – including THE LEGEND OF HERCULES, DEVIL’S DUE, and several collectors sets of GAMERA titles. Finally, there is a 50th anniversary look back at DEVIL DOLL, a 1964 black-and-white British thriller the mixes the old ventriloquist dummy scenario with elements of Svengali.
Dedicated Dossier Fanatics are advised to continue listening in after the closing credits for meandering comments on everything from TORCHWOOD to THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES to Tashen Books’ “The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey” to TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN (GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA) – a colorful 1959 Japanese classic, rarely seen in the U.S. until it became available on Hulu plus.


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Haunted House 2; Bamboo Saucer; Colossus – Dossier Fantastique 5:16.2

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This week, the Dossier Fantastique Podcast opens to reveal the disappointing details regarding A HAUNTED HOUSE 2, the sequel-spoof of everything from PARANORMAL ACTIVITY to SINISTER, starring Marlon Wayans. Also under the microscope is THE BAMBOO SAUCER, a Cold War relic that recently made its Blu-ray debut. For those disappointed with TRANSCENDENCE, the Cinefantastique Podcasting Crew (consisting of Lawrence French, Dan Persons, and Steve Biodrowski) introduce a new segment titled “What You Should Be Watching” – in this case, COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, the 1970 classic about a super-computer that takes control of the world’s nuclear arsenal. Podcast 5:16.2 winds up with a 50th anniversary look back at the German vampire flick CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD (also known as NIGHT OF THE VAMPIRES and THE GIRL WITH THE GREEN EYES).
Hard-core fans are welcome to hang out after the credits to listen in on subsequent conversation regarding PARTICLE FEVER; critical interpretations of KING KONG (1933) as emblematic of fears of miscegenation; and the wisdom of dismissing the original 1954 version of GODZILLA for being too serious to be enjoyed as escapist science fiction.


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Rio 2, Jinn, Lizzie Borden – Dossier Fantastique 15:5.2

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This week, the Dossier Fantastique Podcast is overflowing with data on recent horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. Steve Biodrowski reviews recent threatrical releases RIO 2 (a computer-animated 3D comedy from the makers of ICE AGE) and JINN (a new fantasy-horror film in limited release). In a new segment titled “What You Should Be Watching,” Lawrence French explains why you should check out ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE and avoid UNDER THE SKIN. Dan Persons explains the cult pleasures, such as they are, of Troma’s direct-to-video release RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH VOLUME 1. And Steve Biodrowski wraps up with a review of LIZZIE BORDEN TOOK AN AX, starring Christina Ricci, the Lifetime telefilm based on the real-life horror story, which is now available on DVD. Plus, the usual look at what’s new on home video.


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Only Lovers Left Alive, Under the Skin – Dossier Fantastique 5:14.2

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Dossier Fantastique is overflowing with data this week, offering capsule reviews of new horror, fantasy, and science fiction films in theatres and on home video:

  • Lawrence French enlightens us to the joys of Jim Jarmusch’s indie vampire flick ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, which will hit theatres this Friday after a year on the festival circuit.
  • Steve Biodrowski endures the “wonders” of the over-rated UNDER THE SKIN, starring Scarlett Johansson, which opened on Friday, April 4.
  • Dan Persons recounts the direct-to-video virtues of OUTPOST: RISE OF THE SPETSNAZ (a.k.a. OUTPOST 3: RISE OF THE SPETSNAZ), which hit store shelves a few weeks ago.

Also reviewed: AFFLICTED and ALIEN ADBUCTION, two films that made their theatrical debut on Friday while simultaneously becoming available via Video on Demand services, such as Amazon.com. And you get the usual run-down of what’s opening on home video on Tuesday, April 8.


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Dossier 5-13.2: Locker 13, About Time, Last Man on Earth, Walking Dead Season 4 Finale

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This week, the Dossier Fantastique Podcast is joined by special guest John W. Morehead of TheoFantastique, for a look at what’s new in theatres and on home video in the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Dan Persons opens LOCKER 13, a new low-budget anthology horror film in limited theatrical release and on Video on Demand. Steve Biodrowski talks ABOUT TIME, the time-travel romance comedy from writer-director Richard Curtis, now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Morehead and Lawrence French take a 50th anniversary tour of the end of the world as we know it, courtesy of THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964), starring Vincent Price as the sole survivor of a plague of vampires. And don’t forget to stick around for a post-credits autopsy of the Season 4 finale of THE WALKING DEAD.


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Muppets Most Wanted & The Creeping Terror – Dossier Fantastique 5:12.2

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What’s new in horror, fantasy, and science fiction this week? Open Dossier Fantastique to find out! This week, the usual Cinefantastique podcasting crew – Lawrence French, Dan Persons, Steve Biodrowski – is joined by special guest Andrea Lipinsky. Together, they review the latest in theatrical and home video releases, including: MUPPETS MOST WANTED, currently in theatres;  and HAPPY CAMP and KILL ZOMBIE, available on Video on Demand. Along the way, they react to the Walt Disney Company’s announcement that Pixar is finally developing a sequel to THE INCREDIBLES. And they wind up with a 50th anniversary look back at THE CREEPING TERROR, a prime contender for being one of the worst films ever made (take that, PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE!)
And after the closing credits, don’t leave! Because – there’s more! Listen in the the bonus chat as Lawrence French speculates that Disney’s decision to set the STAR WARS sequels thirty years after RETURN OF THE JEDI conveniently coincides with the actual ages of the cast from the original trilogy. Could this mean they will be making return appearances?


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Patrick; 300: Rise of an Empire; Ernest and Celestine – Dossier Fantastique 5-10

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Time to delve into Dossier Fantastique once again! Unfortunately, Cinefantastique podcaster Lawrence French was missing in action from this episode, but Dan Persons and Steve Biodrowski do their best to fill the void. This week’s contents include capsule reviews of three theatrical features (PATRICK; 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE; ERNEST AND CELESTINE); a rundown of the week’s home video releases, including a review of IN FEAR (arriving on DVD and Blu-ray just four days after a limited platform release); and a 50th anniversary look back at Ib Melchoir’s THE TIME TRAVELERS (1964).
Note: Because Hollywood failed to release a new horror/fantasy/science fiction film worthy of close consideration, there will be no Spotlight Podcast this week.