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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS

as-sure-as-my-name-is-boris-karloff-this-is-a-thriller

The reputation of  Boris Karloff’s “Thriller,” which ran from 1960-1962, is such that it was one of the most highly anticipated DVDs until its 2010 release. Despite its somewhat hefty price tag, it became a best seller (and was followed by a ‘greatest hits’  top ten release in 2012). Author Steven King’s proclaiming it the “best horror series of all time” (in his 1981 book, ‘Danse Macabre’) certainly enhanced its eminence. Of course, a statement that absolute is going to be argued, and it was (with naysayers pointing to the earliest crime oriented episodes as evidence against King’s boast). Naturally, like all series, “Thriller” is uneven. Still, the positives outweigh the negatives enough to justify its cult status.

boris-karloffs-%22thriller%22

Karloff hosted each episode, and acted in a few. This was his second horror anthology series. His first,  the ten episode “The Veil,” from 1958, never actually aired; after its DVD release in 2001, it was dubbed by some critics as “the best television series never seen.” A later DVD release, under the title of  Tales Of The Unexplained From The Veil,” featured two additional “lost” episodes. “The Veil” has also been referred to as a precursor to “Thriller,” although it’s not quite as good and the flavor is different. Hopefully, we’ll get around to reviewing the earlier series by next Halloween.

boris-karloffs-%22thriller%22ad

boris-karloffs-%22thriller%22-ad

“Thriller” premiered on September 13th, 1960 with the episode “The Twisted Image” (directed by Arthur Hiller), which starred Leslie Nielsen and Natalie Trundy. “Her possessive eyes… Alan Patterson was aware of her eyes at the newsstand, at the lunch counter, in the elevator. He was aware of them for almost a month and they were to lead him into guilt, and terror, and murder as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. ”

boris-karloffs-%22thriller-the-twisted-image%22

As we watch, Karloff informs us that this a tale of watching and being watched, assuring that a shattering effect lies within the “Twisted Image.” Nielsen, as Patterson, a married, successful business man, is watched by four psychotic eyes belonging to Lily (Trundy) and Merle (George Gizzard). Lily lusts after him and, at least on the surface, Merle is insanely jealous. Although director Hiller denied it, as it was written (by James P. Cavanagh adapting William O’ Farrell’s novel) and played by Grizzard, there is sexual longing in Merle’s voyeurism as well. Still, we’re not entirely convinced he deserves all the attention, as the very young Nielsen has none of his later charisma. Grizzard walks away with the episode playing a scheming, destructive looney tune coworker. Competent, but unimaginative with no surprises, this debut waddles its way to a lackluster finale.

boris-karloffs-%22thriller-childs-play%22

“Child’s Play” (also directed by Hiller and written by Robert Dozier): With marital discord between his parents (Frank Overton and Bethel Leslie), young Hank (Tommy Nolan) is overdosing on B-Westerns and William Tell while vacationing at a cabin. The potentially darker side of the imagination is explored, with young Hank transforming into a symbol for gun control. A slight improvement over the pilot episode, it’s surprisingly a stationary affair that could have used a dose of fantasizing.

boris-karloffs-%22thriller-worse-than-murder%22

“Worse Than Murder” (directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Mel Goldberg) takes a turn for the worse. If television viewers of 1960 relied solely on first impressions, it’s relatively easy to see why “Thriller” failed to find its audience. This one’s about a murder motivated by love of dyed green paper. Constance Ford kicks into high gear as a scheming gold digger, but her acting is the only thing that thrills here. Otherwise, it’s pedestrian in both writing and direction.

boris-karloffs-%22thriller-mark-of-the-hand%22

While the first three episodes are dull and conventional, “Mark Of The Hand” (directed by Paul Henried, Laszlo of Casablanca fame, and written by Eric Peters) may be the series at its lowest ebb. An eight year old (Terry Turnham) may or may not be guilty of murder. While that premise might have potential in better hands, this is a mystery devoid of mystery: predictable, campy, and a sluggish affair.

boris-karloffs-%22thriller-roses-last-summer%22

“Rose’s Last Summer” (directed by Hiller and written by Marie Baumer) could be easily dismissed as a small screen ripoff of Sunset Boulevard (1950) or a lame warmup to Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962). It’s about the murder of an aging actress, which remarkably fails to generate even the slightest interest, despite starring one time Oscar winner Mary Astor.

boris-karloffs-%22thriller-the-guilty-men%22

“The Guilty Men” (directed by Jules Bricken and written by John Vlahos) is a run of the mill crime melodrama starring Frank Silvera  as a mobster who is trying to go clean and… yawn. On the plus side,  Silvera’s campy acting is a hoot.

boris-karloffs-%22thriller-the-purple-room%22

With “The Purple Room” (written and directed by Douglas Heyes)  starring Rip Torn and the house from Psycho (1960), we finally have a genuine “Thriller.” It’s hardly original, having an old dark house plot, but there’s some fun to be had in the send-up of genre traditions and stereotypes. Karloff never resented being stereotyped, believing that it gifted him a career niche. Additionally, unlike many actors of his period Karloff, had no qualms embracing the small screen medium, and with new producer William Fry, the series takes advantage of its host’s screen persona none too soon.

boris-karloffs-%22thriller%22bors-karloffs-%22thriller-the-purple-room%22

Duncan (Rip Torn) has inherited his sibling’s Bayou mansion, with the condition that he must live there for a year. However, as lawyer Ridgewater (Alan Napier, best known as Alfred from TVs “Batman”) informs Duncan that, if he fails to do so, the mansion falls to scheming cousins Rachel and Oliver (Patricia Barry and Richard Anderson, who would later be known for rebuilding the Six Million Dollar Man ). Naturally, as host Karloff warns us in the intro, the mansion has a little problem with ghosts. Being a pragmatist, Duncan isn’t worried in the least, and to prove it, he will spend the night in the Purple Room, where a murder took place one hundred years before. Shot in crisp black and white, this episode almost makes up for a lack of originality and uneven acting with atmosphere.

boris-karloffs-%22thriller-the-watcher%22

“The Watcher” (directed by Jon Brahm and written by Donald Sanford) is serial killer Freitag (Martin Gabel) who is so good at dispensing with his victims and playing the role of religious zealot that local law enforcement (Alan Baxter) believes the deaths to be unrelated suicides. Freitas sets his sights on sinful lovers Larry and Beth (a pre-“Doctor Kildare” Richard Chamberlain and Olive Sturges) and attempts to convert them before he judges them. There’s a latent bit of same sex lusting in Freitag, but despite the peanut butter and jelly theme of religious hypocrisy, this somewhat grisly episode is an also-ran in the “Thriller” canon.

boris-karloff-%22thriller%22-television-advertisementboris-karloff-%22thriller%22

boris-karloff-%22thriller%22-television-advertisement

“Girl With A Secret” (directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Charles Beaumont) missteps back into the crime melodramas of the first six episodes, courtesy of producer Fletcher Markle. Newlywed Alice (Myrna Fahey) discovers that her husband Anthony (Rhodes Reason) is not who he says he is. The same goes for his “family.” It takes a deft hand to sell this kid of espionage nonsense, and Markle is no Hitchcock. Also starring Victor Buono.

boris-karloff-%22thriller%22-tv-ad-for-%22the-prediction%22boris-karloffs-%22thriller-the-prediction%22

“The Prediction” (directed by Brahm and written by Sanford) stars Karloff himself as a phony psychic who begins to have death visions for real. A first season “ Adventures Of Superman” episode covered related ground, and did it in a more entertaining way. Karloff wrings pathos out of his role, which almost makes up for the contrived plot.

boris-karloff-%22thriller-the-fatal-impulse%22boris-karloff-%22thriller%22-television-advertisement

“The Fatal Impulse” (directed by Gerald Mayer and written by Phillip MacDonald) features a superb cast, which includes Robert Lansing, Conrad Nagel, Elisha Cook Jr. and, briefly, a young Mary Tyler Moore. It’s another preposterous melodrama about a loony named Harry (Cook) who gets caught in an attempt to kill Mayor Wylie (Nagel). Not one to concede defeat, Harry plants incriminating evidence—a bomb–in the purse of an office worker, which brings in a bleak Lt. Rome (Lansing). This crime caper has a different producer in Maxwell Shane, and it helps considerably. There’s tension aplenty as Rome races to find the bomb before it is set to go off. The flavoring of this episode supersedes awkward writing. Mary plays a librarian named Mary.

boris-karloff-%22thriller-the-big-blackout%22boris-karloff-%22thriller%22-television-advertisement

“The Big Blackout” (directed by Maurice Geraghty and written by Don Tracy) is an anonymous, dull episode about an alcoholic amnesiac named Burt (Jack Carson) who belatedly discovers he was involved in some shady business.

boris-karloff-%22thriller-knock-three-one-two%22

“Knock Three One-Two” (directed by Herman Hoffman and written by John Kneubuhl) stars Beverly Garland as Ruth, the put-upon wife of gambling addict Ray (Joe Maross). Ray, having cried wolf one time too many, is not going to be bailed out this time by his wife, which inspires him to hire killer Benny (Warren Oates) to make him a widower. Garland steals the show, although there’s not much to steal in this episode of contrived irony.

boris-karloff-%22thriller-man-in-the-middle%22boris-karloff-%22thriller%22-advertisementboris-karloff-%22thriller%22-advertisement

“Man In The Middle” (directed by Fletcher Markle and written by Howard Rodman) miscasts comedian Mort Sahl  in the dramatic role of Sam, who overhears Mr. Clark (Werner Klemperer—son of conductor Otto and star of “Hogan’s Heroes”) plotting a murder. Reluctantly, Sam decides to try and thwart the thug’s evil plan. If the plot sounds hackneyed, that’s because it is. Series Producer Markle is also out of his element and bowed out for good after this entry.

boris-karloff-%22thriller%22-the-cheaters

“The Cheaters” (directed by Brahm and scripted by Sanford from a story by Robert Bloch) is the first authentically “classic” episode, one worthy of the series’s cult reputation. It kicks off in an entirely different mood: rather than the usual Pete Rugolo jazz opening, producer William Frye brings in composer Jerry Goldsmith, who expertly shrieks and enhances the drama about to unfold. Former Karloff co-star Henry Daniell (from Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher) briefly appears as an inventor who puts on a pair of queer “cheaters” (sunglasses) and has a vision that leads him to hang himself before dawn. His failure to destroy the lethal eyewear proves unfortunate for the victims ahead, who include “A little old fashioned lady named Miriam Alcott played by Miss Mildred Dunnock, a nephew named Percy Dean played by Mr. Jack Weston, and finally a man who discovered the real purpose of the spectacles, Sebastien Grimm played by Mr. Harry Townes. What they saw through those yellow gold lenses they never forgot, and neither will you, my friends, because as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thrillah.”

boris-karloff-%22thriller%22-the-cheaters

This time, Karloff’s lisp lingers, convincing us of goosebumps ahead. Inscribed in the “cheaters” is the name Veritas, the Roman goddess of Truth and, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, the spectacles reveal the soul, shorn of pretense. In a cast of superlative performances, Paul Newlan is a standout as the junk dealer Joe Henshaw. Most fans and critics rank “The Cheaters” in the top five episodes and, for once, the consensus is spot on.

Continue reading