Saturday, July 24, 2010

Friday Night Fright Flix.

This crappy movie started production in 1968 as a non-Dracula, non-Frankenstein picture called The Blood Seekers. It was apparently about a mad scientist (J. Carrol Naish) and his mute assistant Groton (Lon Chaney, Jr.) searching for the key to eternal life through blood experiments. The self-deluded Doctor, believing himself to be a benefactor of mankind, would murder pretty young girls, then bring them back to life. The trauma of death would create a new chemical in their bloodstreams, which the Doctor wishes to use to cure his paralysis. Unfortunately, he chooses to kidnap the wrong victim, as a concerned member of the abducted girl's family begins to investigate the Doctor's shady practices...

Somehow, the movie simply failed to come together. Director Al Adamson tried to make a coherent film out of the footage he'd shot, but was unhappy with the result. Next, so the legend goes, he and producer Sam Sherman decided to turn the movie into a Frankenstein story, even going so far as to book the unfinished film in theaters as Blood of Frankenstein. Even then, Adamson was unable to pull his film together; Sam Sherman scrambled to fulfill his obligations to the theaters by coming up with a new, color Frankenstein movie. At the last minute, he found La Marca del Hombre Lobo, Paul Naschy's debut film, which was originally shot in 3-D and was establishing Naschy as a new horror star in Spain. Sherman released the Naschy film as Frankenstein's Bloody Terror, though the movie really features vampires and werewolves. In spite of the misleading title, the movie was a success, and today Sherman rather immodestly suggests that it was his and Al Adamson's "discovery" of Naschy that led to Naschy's subsequent popularity.

Meanwhile, Adamson and Sherman were left with an unfinished mass of footage. Adamson was never one to give up on an unfinished film: another of his movies, Blood of Ghastly Horror, was assembled from the bits of at least three unrelated projects. Finally, they came up with the idea they thought would pull the film together, as well as make it tremendously attractive commercially: they'd throw in Dracula.

Sherman wanted John Carradine to play Dracula. Carradine worked with Adamson on a number of pictures, including the moderately successful comedy Blood of Dracula's Castle (a movie which I think is one of Adamson's most enjoyable). Curiously, in Dracula's Castle Carradine was cast as George the butler, rather than as Dracula. Though Carradine is a hoot in the film, it is strange to think that Adamson was so reluctant to cast him as the King of Vampires. I think Adamson would have used Carradine better in the role than William Beaudine did in Billy the Kid Meets Dracula (Adamson featured Carradine in another film called Doctor Dracula (1981), this time pieced together from bits of another director's discards).

Adamson's judgment is called further into question when you see the "actor" he did cast as Dracula: former stock broker Robert Engel, a man with no acting ability at all, who was cast simply because Adamson thought he looked right for the part. Adamson's previous Dracula had been played by Alex (Horrors of Spider Island) D'Arcy, a tubby, nonthreatening little man. This actually made sense, because in Blood of Dracula's Castle, the vampires were effete creatures who had given up the messy business of hunting victims. By contrast, though the inexpressive Engel is supposed to be playing the role straight he comes off looking like a Frank Zappa throw back.

In the great tradition of Lugosi and Karloff, Engel was assigned a "scary" pseudonym in the attempt to establish him as a new horror star. The name eventually chosen (by Famous Monsters publisher Forrest Ackerman, who appears in the film) was "Zandor Vorkov"; Zandor for Anton Szandor LeVey, real-life leader of the Church of Satan, and Vorkov because it sounded vaguely like Karloff.

Vorkov's footage was shot considerably later than the initial footage for Blood Seekers. Short inserts of Vorkov peering from the shadows were inserted into existing scenes. Other new scenes were shot with members of the original cast. Here the spartan low-budget look of the film worked to its own advantage: since much of the film takes place in total darkness, it was reasonably easy to shoot new footage and have it match the scenes that had already been filmed.

Adamson's world view often seems extremely conservative. He may have made pictures about savage biker gangs, hippies, swinging stewardesses or other counterculture types, but his sympathies seem a million miles away. His movies may seem shocking at times, but unlike the genuinely counterculture movies of the era, they seem intended to reinforce stereotypes rather than force audiences to think through them. Adamson's carefully-constructed Hippie Den of Iniquity, into which Judith stumbles, is hilarious: just look at the neatly painted slogans on the walls (POT... SOCIETY SUCKS... [something out-of-frame] IS A RELIGIOUS HEAD TRIP...).

Here's four things you are sure to notice a truly bad horror film, a unifying principle for all manner of awful films from the 30's through today:

1. The Good Guys will always identify the Bad Guys immediately, even if they have never met them before (almost as though they'd been reading the script);
2. The Good Guys may shoot said Bad Guys without provocation, and from any distance, even if the Bad Guys are unarmed;
3. The Good Guys will always kill the Bad Guys instantly with their shots, no matter how far away the Good Guys may be, no matter how poor the lighting conditions, and no matter how difficult the shot;

3a. If the Bad Guys are standing on top of a cliff, a building or any other high point, they will invariably grimace, clutch themselves, spin around and fall off said high point;

4. This morally indefensible behavior will in no way impugn their status as Good Guys in the movie.

When faced with limitations that would have discouraged a less resourceful man, Al Adamson and Sam Sherman did some of their best work. No one could have expected that a movie cobbled together out of so many ill-matched pieces would be so much fun, let alone become such an enduring favorite. And it seems that the bleaker the filming situation got, and the more desperate Adamson became, the better and more interesting his results became.

This movie would prove to be the last role for Lon Chaney, Jr. who was most remembered as the tortured Lawrence Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941). He is the only person to have played all four of the classic movie monsters: The Wolf Man (1941) (Larry Talbot/Wolf Man); The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) (The Frankenstein Monster); The Mummy's Tomb (1942) (Kharis, the mummy); Son of Dracula (1943) (Count Anthony Alucard, Dracula's son).

Follow the editing in the big fight scene in Dr. Durea's dungeon. It's not always successful, but it's far better than the similar static scenes that clutter up so many other mad scientist movies. Clearly some thought went into the camera angles and movements (though not so much on the lighting), and the result is a credibly suspenseful scene. The movie even repeats the opening credit music at this point -- a nice touch. The action is timed so that the music's most distinctive, lumbering cadence accompanies Dr. Durea's ascent in the elevator. The moment would have been really boring without that music, but with the music it seems purposeful and laden with menace. Again, the scene goes nowhere, but for a moment it really seems like it's about to.

Strange to say, in many of Adamson's films I find those few moments enough.

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