On COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE

Celebrating one of Paul Naschy’s most interesting films

I can vividly remember the first time I met Paul Naschy.

I was a kid, maybe 12, and, as I was want to do in those days, I opted to stay up all-night, watching and videotaping every class of horror related film or show that filtered from my cathode-spitting screen. Perusing the TV guide with highlighter in hand (yes, I was THAT much of a movie dork, even then), I ran my yellow ink across a 4:15am screening on local channel CFTO of something called DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE starring all kinds of Spanish-sounding people I’d never heard of.

I stayed up. I watched. And was profoundly affected.

Here was an early seventies European shocker, romantic and cruel, violent and sexy, lush and ludicrous. The music was shrill and overbearing; the English dubbing was brilliantly off; the tone and rhythm were wonderfully alien and there were charming little pubic hairs flickering in the peripherals of the eerily worn and faded print that only added to the movie’s sumptuous other-worldliness.

And at the center of all, playing the good Count himself (more or less) was a hirsute, barrel-chested hombre named Paul Naschy. Looking a bit like a sun-kissed John Belushi, Naschy seemed like the least obvious choice to play the quintessential King of the Vampires and yet, somehow his hangdog, sad eyed visage was oddly appropriate.

Ultimately, my reaction to both Naschy and the film itself was one of intense bewilderment – I had never seen anything like it. Once the picture wound down to its rather abrupt and dramatic climax, I knew I had fallen in love with it. And yet I couldn’t properly articulate as to why that was.

Though the battered print I watched was listed in the TV guide under the title DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE, the actual full on-screen English moniker for director Javier Aguirre’s micro-epic of undead lesbian sex, eternal romantic longing and Gothic bloodlust is COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE (literally translated from the original Spanish EL GRAN AMOR DEL CONDE DRACULA). Many reference books and resources have erroneously dropped the “Count” from the picture’s name, due primarily to the fact that most badly pan and scanned versions of it (including the one I saw) shaved off the letters “C-O”, a sloppy mistake that led one of my equally horror obsessed pals to constantly refer to it as CUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE.

Now then… the plot.

After a carriage load of ample-bosomed Spanish honey’s and one lucky, macho, pork-chop-sideburned dude (played by Naschy’s HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB co-star Vic Winner) bust a wagon wheel and get stranded, the intrepid crew wind their way to Dr. Wendell Marlow’s remote country sanitarium where they are put up for the night by their gracious, badly dubbed host. The thing is, the good doc is actually the legendary Count Dracula in disguise and not only is he hungry for their blood…he’s lonely.

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On THE SHOUT

A closer look at a rarely seen horror masterpiece

Whether it be a low, wet, growl coming from deep within in the dark, a disembodied whisper from behind a long locked door, or the skin-tightening timbre of a terrified woman’s pre-knife stuck scream, the use of sound has been manipulated since the dawn of horror cinema as a highly-effective tool to terrify those lucky enough to be blessed with relatively good hearing. Sound fills in the blanks, giving audible life to seemingly benign tableaux; people, objects and events are transformed. Sometimes sound is used to create tension, to provide the aural punch line to an unbearable set up and sometimes sound is even used to lull the viewer into a false sense of calm before unleashing whatever beast the filmmaker has heretofore kept under wraps. But in Polanski pal and Deep End director Jerzy Skolimowski’’s little discussed 1978 tone poem THE SHOUT, sound is used for even more aggressive purposes: to maim, to harm, to inflict agony and eventually, to kill every living thing in its path.

If you’ve never heard of THE SHOUT, you certainly are not alone. This dark, abstract sliver of arthouse weirdness has been long absent from Blu-ray or DVD on North American shores (an excellent, feature-filled British Blu-ray was released a few years ago) and the ancient, Columbia Pictures US VHS release is a highly-sought-after collectible.

I first encountered THE SHOUT the same way I first encountered many of my favorite films: alone, on late night television. This strange, dark and slowly paced film marked me the deepest and not a day went by that I did not think about it in some way shape or form. My fixation on it later amplified when I realized that basically no one I knew had ever seen it, let alone were aware of (or cared about) its existence and it felt as though it were mine, a secret slice of cinema whose fan club sported one member: me.

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On THE LAST MAN ON EARTH

Dissecting the most faithful adaption to date of Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND

Dr. Robert Morgan is not a well man. A mysterious airborne, plague-bearing dust storm has smothered the world, killing every man, woman and child and reviving them as sluggish, dull witted and eternally ravenous vampires. And yet, somehow, someway, Morgan has remained immune, completely unscathed…well, physically, anyway. He lives his life like a machine, by day rising early, clearing the streets of comatose, emaciated ghouls and throwing their barely living bodies into an eternally burning tar pit, tracking the sleeping stronger ones to their lairs and driving his specially made stakes through their hearts.

But by night, when the sun sinks below the horizon, the fanged echoes of mankind come-a-crawling out of their hiding spots, stumbling towards Morgan’s garlic and mirror fortified bungalow, clawing at his windows, screaming for his flesh and his blood. Such nerve shredding conditions might drive a weaker man to madness but, though he skirts insanity often, Morgan instead opts to play his jazz records loud, pour scotch, crawl into bed, squish a pillow against his head and wait, always wait, for the break of day when he’ll get up and start the horrible cycle all over again. Unbeknownst to Morgan however, he’s being watched by something other than the monsters, something that views him as an even bigger threat than the red-eyed viral vampires themselves.

This is the story charted in directors Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona’s 1964 Vincent Price vehicle THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, the first (and to date, best) stab at adapting influential dark fantasy author Richard Matheson’s still blistering existential 1954 vampire novella I AM LEGEND to screen. Written, then disowned, by the notoriously cranky author, the low budget Robert Lippert (THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING) Italian/US co-production had often been dismissed as a failed attempt to capture the psyche-destroying , bloodsucker-staking exploits of Matheson’s eternally put upon virus survivor, Robert Neville. Thankfully, that perception has changed through the years. Because although it inexplicably changes its hero’s name from Neville to Morgan, and tweaks the ending somewhat, it otherwise seldom strays from the novella’s narrative and perfectly captures it’s bleaker than bleak tone, downbeat mood and broken heart.

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On THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA

A look at the wild 1971 American vampire sequel

As the 1960s wound down and young audiences began hungering for more explicit horror entertainment, indie genre imprint American International Pictures (AIP) found some substantial success with director Bob Kelljan’s low-budget, Robert Quarry-starring 1970 shocker COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (filmed as a softcore flick called THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA, VAMPIRE but softened and tweaked in the marketing stage when it was proved that no one could bloody-well read the title!). Sam Arkoff from AIP was so thrilled with Quarry’s presence on screen that he signed the elegant character actor to a contract. The idea was to groom him as the successor to their aging creepy flick cash-cow Vincent Price and build a series of horror films around his persona. But before they could put their newfangled leading man to work, Quarry stepped out with director Ray Danton to make another film independently and with some of his own cash called DEATHMASTER, a sort of amalgam of Yorga and the then topical Manson death cult tabloid bait that was still shocking the nation. That film, in which Quarry stars as a charismatic new age vampire named Khorda (not Yorga, Khorda!) was a little bit too close to AIP’s intended Yorga franchise plans (Quarry even wore the same custom fangs made for him for COUNT YORGA) and, reportedly none too pleased, Arkoff picked up the rights to DEATHMASTER, buried it, and immediately pushed Quarry into production on Kelljan’s sequel, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA.

I mention this bit of back-story because AIP then opted to put the tagline “The DEATHMASTER is back from beyond the grave!”on the theatrical poster for THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA which was, well, kind of a dick move and not the best way to start a newly-minted business relationship.

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On LITTLE JOE

Quietly unnerving horror movie offers subtle, scary rewards

If Ingmar Bergman had mounted a production of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, it might feel something like co-writer/director’s bizarre and dreamlike anti-horror horror movie LITTLE JOE. Out now on DVD from Magnolia Home Entertainment, the film is bound to isolate general horror fans looking for a quick thrill but is almost guaranteed an enduring cult following from genre obsessives who prefer to be challenged and frustrated by their cinema. And if nothing else, LITTLE JOE is indeed designed to challenge and frustrate but it also offers subtle rewards and ample pleasures for those willing to navigate its austere weirdness.

Emily Beecham (who won the best actress award at Cannes) stars as Alice, a botanist working for a British company experimenting in new breeds of consumer plant life. She and her partner Chris (Ben Whishaw) have created a pretty and oddly emotional plan that Alice nicknames “Little Joe” after her son Joe who is light of her life. Said plant apparently releases a pollen that makes its owner bond with the sprout in the same ways in which parents chemically connect with their children. “Little Joe” feeds on human contact, on conversation and kindness and in turn, releases a hormone that makes its “parent” happy. Although explicitly instructed not to do so, Alice brings one of the plants home for her son as a gift. Everything seems fine at first, but slowly, surely, her boy begins acting strangely, removing himself from her and suggesting he’d rather live with his father. Alice begins to suspect that her “Little Joe” might not be quite as benign as she had intended, and when the plants begin releasing their pollen to staff in the lab, she wonders if she has in fact created a monster.

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On THE INVISIBLE MAN

Well directed and acted thriller is hampered by a thoughtless script

Writer/Director Leigh (SAW, INSIDIOUS) Whannell’s THE INVISIBLE MAN is a frustrating film. Anchored by a truly fantastic lead performance by Elizabeth Moss, the movie looks great, moves with purpose, has a deft sound design and innovative and refreshingly minimalist special effects. The fact that there are so many great things going for it, makes its flaws all the more glaring, chief among them a shockingly thoughtless script that threatens to derail the entire otherwise opulent affair.

Moss stars as Cecilia, a woman whose millionaire inventor husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has apparently kept her in a state of emotional and physical agony. Pushed too far by his abuse, she escapes, in a beautifully orchestrated opening sequence that relies on atmosphere, suspense, sound and of course, Moss’s ever-expressive face. With the aid of her sister, she seeks shelter with her friend James (Aldis Hodge), a single dad who lives alone with his teenage daughter. Living in terror that her maniacal ex will find her and finish her off, she spends her days a recluse until she finds out that the brute has apparently committed suicide and left her his fortune. As she slowly comes out of her shell, strange things begin to happen and soon, Cecilia comes to the conclusion that Adrian is not dead, but has instead perfected the science of invisibility and is now dedicated to making her life an even more special sort of Hell, one in which no one will ever truly believe her accusations of abuse.

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On BLOOD AND FLESH: THE REEL LIFE AND GHASTLY DEATH OF AL ADAMSON

Intimate, uproarious documentary about the B movie legend is also a tragic true crime film

David (LOST SOUL) Gregory’s latest document of cinema eccentricity BLOOD AND FLESH: THE REEL LIFE AND GHASTLY DEATH OF AL ADAMSON, is first and foremost a tragedy. It begins at the end, in 1995, when mainstream media headlines screamed about the grisly discovery of a “horror movie director” who was found entombed in the basement of his California home, the victim of a sociopathic handyman who then went on the lam. It was a sensational finale to a fascinating life making movies whose go-for-broke (in many cases, literally going broke) sensibilities served as a middle finger to good taste. Adamson made pictures that were often rightfully lambasted by the critics, but thrived primarily in the undiscriminating passion pit worlds where cheap, dark fantasy thrills served as background noise to whatever shenanigans were going down in the backseats. Indeed, the gentle, likable director lived to make movies but his sad, cruel death was something that even he couldn’t have imagined.

The son of pioneering Western movie star Denver Dixon, Adamson was literally raised in the movie business and soon fell into directing films in the late ’60s and ’70s, at a time when there really was a healthy market for movies like HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS, BRAIN OF BLOOD, BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR, BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE and, of course, his most notorious (and perhaps most successful) effort, the deranged DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN. Adamson, along with his frequent collaborator, producer Sam Sherman, unleashed an endless supply of psychedelic skid row schlock , movies made with energy and oddball vision and starring many aging Hollywood legends, like John Carradine, The Ritz Brothers and Aldo Ray. Adamson’s work may not have been “good” by standard definitions of the word, but seen as a body of work it was -and remains – unique, colorful and admirably consistent.

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On THE TURNING

Director Floria Sigismondi delivers a serious-minded, stylish and surreal fever dream

Somebody somewhere screwed up the story and spread the belief that all horror movies had to tear you to pieces, saturating the screen with sadism and nihilism and other sorts of negative isms. They forgot that once upon a time, people turned to darker filmed fantasies to immerse themselves in beauty, to experience a sort of sinister, out-of-body, sensorial trip; to lose oneself in a work of macabre imagination, of somber moods and grandiose imagery. I can’t be sure exactly when jolts and jumps and spoon-fed, mundane logic superseded aesthetics in horror, but I know how lousy I feel when the world shrugs its shoulders in the wake of the release of a film – and a filmmaker – who has NOT forgotten what the essence of the genre is.

Such a picture is THE TURNING, and such a director is Floria Sigismondi, the artist whose landmark work making videos for David Bowie and Marilyn Manson (and many, many others) defined the look and feel of darker rock ‘n’ roll in the 1990s. Her 2010 feature film debut THE RUNAWAYS was a logical extension of her love of sound and image, telling the story of Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and the titular band in a visually flashy fashion. But that movie’s greatest power was when it dialed things down, when it focused on faces, inner voices and emotion. The brief sequence where a tired, homesick Currie hears Don McLean’s “Vincent” on the radio during a drive between gigs is in itself a small, moving piece of cinema as poetry and secretly encapsulates everything the movie is about. Her second film, the recently released THE TURNING is indeed a horror picture, yet another dive into the well-worn weird-world painted in Henry James’ novel “The Turn of the Screw”.  And while the trailer for this one speaks to appeal to the Friday night Blumhouse crowd, its PG-13 rating inviting almost all audiences in to see it, the actual film itself is something else, or rather it slowly, surely, becomes something else. In fact, THE TURNING has the ultimate effect of actually turning, of rotating, sensually, seriously. It’s a movie that begins as a whole and then sort of melts into a swirling death-pool of subconscious imagery and primordial terror. In other words, it’s the work of a great artist trying to remind the world of the real deal power of horror cinema and what it can do to its audience.

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On HITCH HIKE TO HELL

A look at the shocking yet sophisticated 1977 indie psycho-thriller

Director Irvin Berwick (MALIBU HIGH) may not have made many movies in his day, but – as we all know – quality trumps quantity and his 1977 exploitation psychodrama shocker HITCH HIKE TO HELL is not only his best work, it’s one of the weirdest and most potent pictures of its kind, and that’s saying something considering the company the movie kept during that most sensational era of “passion pit” drive-in potboilers. And really, “quality” is a subjective term. By conventional standards, the shoestring-budgeted HITCH HIKE TO HELL isn’t a particularly well produced work. But man, does it pack a disorienting, primal punch.

The film tells the tawdry tale of Howard (Robert Gribbin), a dry-cleaning delivery driver who is seemingly happy, upbeat and well-liked by all. Certainly the wayward women hitchhikers he picks up dig his company. He’s kind and a good listener. But the problem is, when said runaway ladies start taking trash about their domestic lives – specifically griping about their mothers – Howard starts to get dark. Then, he gets darker. Within minutes, Jekyll become Hyde and Howard drives his poor passengers to a remote locale, yanks them screaming out of his van and beats and savagely rapes them before brutally murdering them. And then it repeats.

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On MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES

1957 Lon Chaney biopic is a beautifully made classic

Generally speaking, contemporary horror fans tend to associate the name Lon Chaney with the legacy of his son, Lon Chaney Jr, the man who was – and will forever be – Universal’s THE WOLF MAN. But of course, the more seasoned cinephile knows the elder Chaney was one of the founding fathers of special effects and fantasy-film performance art during motion pictures’ pioneering silent birth. He was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and he was indeed just that, a virtuoso creator who literally did it all and perfected the craft of making the most hideous of visages sympathetic, likable and sometimes, even lovable.

In the late 1950s, perhaps due to the birth of television and the renewed interest in monsters, Chaney’s legacy enjoyed a resurgence, with late night horror shows screening Chaney classics like THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE MAN WHO LAUGHED and magazines like Famous Monsters offering beautifully painted covers of the master’s various guises. Enter Joseph Pevney’s Cheney biopic MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES starring the legendary Jimmy Cagney and co-written by R. Wright Campbell (writer of a handful of classic Roger Corman westerns). The 1957 Universal production was initially criticized for its altering of key facts in Chaney’s life and for the casting of Cagney, who was by this time a bit long-in-the-tooth to play the actor during his youth. But no matter. Time has proven this fine film to be the classic it is and now, thanks to Arrow Video’s licensing of the title for Blu-ray, we can reappraise the picture.

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