1972 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DRACULA A.D. 1972, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, AND THE THING WITH 2 HEADS

1972  is perhaps the most prolific year in the most prolific decade of horror and exploitation films. It’s also the year for what may be the quintessential midnight cult move: John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, now enshrined as one of the 366 weirdest movies of all time. Blood Freak, which is the first and only “Christian” movie to date about a turkey serial killer, is another Certified Weird 1972 exploitation picture. Competing with Freak fro sheer awfulness was Don Barton’s Zaat(AKA Blood Waters of Dr. Z), which went onto “MST3K” infamy.

In its Blu-ray presentation, Mario Bava’s maligned Baron Blood has proven better than its reputation, despite a miscast Joseph Cotten in the title role. Like most of Bava, it’s stylishly irresistible. The 1972 Amicus omnibuses Asylum and Tales From The Crypt both starred Peter Cushing, and were critical and box office successes. Ben, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and Beware The Blob were all inferior sequels—which is saying a lot in the case of an original monster who was just moving silly putty. Jess Franco tackled the two big undead kahunas (with plenty of added sex) in The Erotic Experiences of Frankenstein and Daughter of Dracula. The Count rose yet again in Count Dracula’s Great Love, starring Paul Naschy. Future King of Cartoons (William Marshall) and director William Crain fused horror with blacksploitation for the first time in Blacula. It was a enough of a box office success to warrant  (superior) sequel in 1973. Unfathomably busy, Cushing and Christopher Lee teamed up for Freddie Francis’ underrated Creeping Flesh, Gene Martin’s cult favorite Horror Express, Peter Sasdy’s misfire Nothing but the Night, and the Hammer opus Dracula AD 1972 (directed by Alan Gibson).

Widely scorned, Dracula A.D. 1972 reunited Cushing’s Van Helsing with Lee’s bloodsucker in a modern setting, even though Dracula himself is confined to a Gothic church. It’s one of  Tim Burton’s favorite movies. The contemporaneous critical backlash was mostly justified. Lee, probably the best cinematic Count, is reduced to second vampire-in-waiting. But as an artifact of its time, Dracula A.D. 1972 is not entirely without virtue, enough to explain Burton’s affection.

It opens in the previous century with Dracula and Van Helsing locked in mortal combat aboard a stagecoach, which crashes, causing the vampire to be impaled on the spokes of the coach’s wheel. As Dracula attempts to free himself, a battered and bleeding Van Helsing interferes, driving the spokes in deep enough to snuff out the life of his nemesis before dying himself. Witnessing the scene is a Dracula disciple who, of course, leaves with the vampire’s relics (handy for later resurrection). Despite the preposterous   accidental impalement, it’s a red-blooded, Gothic prologue that is followed by 1972’s swinging hippies.

Initially sounding more like old fuddy-duddy Edward Van Sloan than Peter Cushing, Lorimer Van Helsing, grandson of Abraham, lectures his granddaughter Jessica (Hammer babe Stephanie Beacham) all about the wrong crowd and premarital sex. Pooh-poohing gramps, Jessica heads straight for the wrong crowd, which includes bad seed Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame). His name, of course is a leftover gag from the 1943 Universal bomb Son of Dracula (starring a woefully miscast Lon Chaney, Jr.) Silly character name aside, Neame, once past the groovy scene (and pointless rock numbers) is creepily charismatic as the actual antagonist performing a Satanic ritual, during which he sacrifices Laura (Hammer babe #2 Caroline Munro) to resurrect the Prince Of Darkness. Throwing in a dash of pseudo-Satanism was no doubt influenced by the flood brought on by 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and seems an odd fit. Regardless, the ceremony is stylishly fleshed out in a ruined abbey.

The film then takes a sharp turn when focusing on the modern ruffian Alucard, who now takes over lead cruising-vampire role to exact revenge on the Van Helsing bloodline, while Dracula hangs out in the church, a symbol with little to do. It’s an old dilemma when a major character has so much baggage attached to him (or her) that filmmakers are afraid to take risks and have to create a second, more elastic character to have fun with (e.g., “naughty” Donald Duck being created to contrast with the stiff Mickey Mouse). Scotland Yard calls in expert Van Helsing for help, after bodies start piling up (imagine that). Cushing’s energizer bunny finally kicks in for a duel to the death with a turtlenecked bloodsucker and a bathtub, although the second accidental dispatch might tempt one to dismiss the film as Gothic slapstick or, perhaps, a precursor to Fright Night (1985).

Confined to his safe Gothic setting, Lee’s Dracula disappointingly never actually sees 1972, but he does get to engage in a spirited showdown with Cushing’s Van Helsing fourteen years after their last go at it.

The mod dialogue and slang in the early party scene is unbearable, embarrassingly dating the film. Curiously, much criticism was also leveled against Michael Vicker’s horn score, which is so idiosyncratic that it aids the film. An attempt is made to offset the flaws with three stylish action sequences, an older but still-animated Cushing and Lee, newcomer Neame as a coffee-house vampire, and of course, dual Hammer sex symbols Beacham and Munro. It all adds up to the most bipolar of the Hammer Dracula series, at least until the same team returned for the even queerer 1973 followup The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

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1967 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: CORRUPTION, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, AND THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS

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We start our 1967 genre survey with a considerable amount of barrel-bottom scraping with two of Herschell Gordon Lewis‘ most execrable efforts: The Gruesome Twosome and Something Weird. He also made the somewhat better A Taste of Blood the same yearWith a bigger budget and longer running time (118 minutes), Lewis referred to Blood as his “Gone With The Wind” masterpiece.  Actually, it’s modeled more after Roger Corman than Victor Fleming. Lacking the excess of Lewis’ previous films and featuring a “classic” monster in Dracula, it’s mostly seen as a noble misfire by Lewis’ cult.

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Elsewhere in 1967, Larry Buchanan, a director on par with the likes of Lewis, William Beaudine, Ed Wood, or Phil Tucker, produced a pair of jaw-dropping bombs in Mars Needs Women and Creature of Destruction. Jean Yarbrough, who had previously helmed such masterpieces as The Devil Bat (1940), directed Basil Rathbone, Joi Lansing, John Carradine and Lon Chaney, Jr. in Hillbillies in a Haunted House. Rathbone died shortly after filming and was spared embarrassment from a film so wretched that it’s virtually unwatchable. His surviving co-stars and director weren’t as fortunate. Nazis-on-ice figure prominently in Herbert Leader’s The Frozen Dead, which at least has some unintentional humor going for it. Joan Crawford went Beserk for director Jim O’Connell. The film’s a paltry effort, but Joan is a humdinger channeling her inner Mommie Dearest.

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A blind Boris Karloff got whupped by Viveca Lindfors in Cauldron Of Blood, but the on-his-last-leg genre icon fared considerably better in Michael Reeves’ excellent cult classic, The Sorcerers. Harald Reini did Christopher Lee few favors when directing the actor for The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism. John Gilling likewise missed the mark in Hammer’s The Mummy’s Shroud. Away from Hammer Studios, Terence Fisher was out of his element in his final sci-fi opus[1] , Island of the Burning Damned, starring Lee and Peter Cushing. By his own admission, Fisher had no enthusiasm for science fiction and went back to his Hammer Horror niche later in 1967 with Frankenstein Created Woman.

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Fisher favorite Peter Cushing made a sharp departure from his typical acerbic-but-classy screen persona by dipping into pure sleaze for Corruption (directed by Robert Hartford-Davis). Although most sources give the release date as 1968, it’s also listed as a 1967 production. Most likely it’s the later date, but since we have that year already filled up, we’ll cheat a tad in placing it here. A sordid hybrid of The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Eyes Without A Face (1960), Corruption can be summed up by the Blu-ray cover art image of a middle-aged Cushing taking a knife to the throat of a scantily clad buxom blonde. He plays surgeon Sir John Rowan, engaged to fashion model Lynn Nolan (Sue Lloyd). An accident (caused by Rowan) leaves Lynn disfigured. After conventional skin-grafting plastic surgery fails, Sir John resorts to slightly unorthodox methods to restore her back to potential trophy wife status, which involves medical and Egyptian mumbo jumbo along with removing the pituitary gland of a corpse. The treatment works, but only temporarily. Soon, Lynn is back to being an ugly duckling. So what does Sir John have up his sleeve? Fresher specimens, which can only be supplied via a murder spree. This being 60s swinging London, there is a ready supply of hot female victims with raging pituitaries.

PETER CUSHING, SUE LLOYD, ANTHONY BOOTH KATE OMARA DAVE LODGE VALERIE VAN OST 'CORRUPTION' 1968 Dir ROBERT HARTFORD DAVIS PETERCUSHING.ORG.UK

PETER CUSHING, SUE LLOYD, ANTHONY BOOTH KATE OMARA DAVE LODGE VALERIE VAN OST ‘CORRUPTION’ 1968 Dir ROBERT HARTFORD DAVIS PETERCUSHING.ORG.UK

Lloyd steps into the role that Luana Walters filled in The Corpse Vanishes and Cushing replaces Lugosi. It goes without saying that the Hammer thespian’s work far surpasses the Hungarian vampire’s. That might not be much of a compliment, since Lugosi was, with few exceptions, one of the horror genre’s worst actors. Cushing himself seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the film, having described it as excessively sick. His belated embarrassment aside, Cushing is superb in this atypical role. While a natural for the character’s reserved side, among the flower-power generation Cushing is the proverbial fish-out of water, which benefits the characterization. The actor excels when transforming into a batshit looney toon, even wiping the blood of one victim on her exposed breast, before one of the most outlandish finales ever committed to celluloid. Aside from Cushing, Kate O’Mara, as the sister-in-law-to-be, gives a serviceable performance, but Lloyd fails to convince in her underwritten part. Working against flat direction, an out-of-place jazz score and an unenthusiastic cast, it’s entirely Cushing’s film. It’s no Eyes Without a Face, but after being unreleased for years, Grindhouse Pictures gives it the Criterionesque treatment it deserves, with the extreme closeups of a sweaty, bug-eyed Cushing doing the dirty, popping in a glorious 60s wash. Both the (slightly longer and more risqué) international and American versions are included, along with alternate scenes, interviews, the shooting script, audio commentary, and the misogynistic trailer, which declares: “This is not a woman’s picture. No woman will go home alone after seeing Corruption. Therefore, no woman will be admitted alone to see this super shocker.”

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1968 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, AND SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

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In 1968 George Romero released one of the most relentlessly frightening movies ever made in Night of the Living Dead, but it took a couple of years for the midnight movie crowd to make it into an epic cult phenomenon. Seen today, it holds up effectively, even with our sensibilities jaded from countless hack imitations. Its grainy black, white, and gray palette serves its otherworldliness well during a late night viewing on big screen, which I how I first encountered it. Even Romero could never quite match it, although he continued to try for forty years.

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The argument can be made that Romero’s best post-Night of the Living Dead films were outside the zombie genre (The Crazies, Martin, NightRiders, and Creepshow). Still, no one does zombies like Romero (as Tom Savini proved with his 1990 NotLD remake), and the movie closest to the impact of the original was its immediate sequel, Dawn of the Dead(1978), which was a shock satire on Western consumerism, brutalizing in its late 70s comic book colors and deliberate plays on banality. Some claim Dawn is Romero’s masterpiece, although it lacks the original’s reinventing-the-wheel, rough-edged freshness. In 2004, Dawn was remade by Zack Snyder who completely missed Romero’s acerbic wit. The underrated Day of the Dead (1985) was the third in Romero’s original zombie trilogy, but did not attain the cult status of its predecessors. Its financial disappointment seemed to render it a finale to Romero’s zombie oeuvre. However, Romero, who has always been a sporadic filmmaker, returned with The Land of the Dead in 2005, which was followed by Diary of the Dead (2007) and what looks to be his last film, Survival of the Dead (2009). Each of Romero’s zombie sequels has its equal share of fans and critics, but at the very least, he has tried to say something new with each entry.

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None have attained the compact rawness of that 1968 yardstick, however. Duane Jones became a cult icon as the doomed protagonist Ben. Previously an English professor, Jones was the first African-American to have a starring role in a horror feature (the script does not specify Ben’s ethnicity). Judith O’Dea, as Barbara, is the eternal victim ( in Savini’s remake, the character is recast as a feminist femme fatale). Together, they hole up in a farmhouse and fight off the marching dead, but are inevitably at the mercy of hayseeds with guns. The shot-on-the-cheap crudeness and novice acting actually add to the mundane horror. It was riveting enough to create an entirely new genre, but predictably, its unique qualities have eluded pale imitations.

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Elsewhere in 1968, AIP’s Wild In The Streets (directed by Barry Shear) was both hippie exploitation and a political satire starring that fifteen minute idol, Christopher Jones, along with Shelley Winters, Hal Holbrook, and Richard Pryor. It became an instant cult hit and received predominantly good reviews. The Mini-Skirt Mob (directed by Maury Dexter), on the other hand, was a biker exploitation that was as bad as its title indicated. Not to be left out, Herschell Gordon Lewis contributed She-Devils on Wheels. It’s about (drum roll)… biker chicks. It’s pretty damned entertaining.

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Joseph Sarno began his famous series of arthouse erotica with Inga, starring Marie Liljedahl, who became a very short-lived sensation. Sarno followed this with two more Inga films (minus Liljedahl) before going into actual pornography.

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Back on the Gothic end of the spectrum, Boris Karloff barely made it through his last three films:  Fear Chamber, House Of Evil, and  Vernon Sewell’s Curse Of The Crimson Altar.  It was on the set of Curse that Karloff caught pneumonia and died shortly after. Sewell fared no better directing Peter Cushing in The Blood Beast Terror. John Carradine continued a downward slide with Ted V. Mikel’s The Astro-Zombies, which justifiably makes a lot of “worst movie” lists. Shockingly, it reaped quite a profit on the drive-in circuit, but one has to image it was merely an excuse for rubber-necking or a nap, because it’s a wretchedly dull endurance test.

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