Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Dracula Saga (1973)

Count Dracula seems to have a habit of always being reborn, both within the stories themselves as well as in different incarnations across the board of entertainment media. He’s become so synonymous with horror and Halloween that he will never leave the public consciousness. You can kill him off with a wooden stake or by overexposing him with so many variations, adaptations, tie-ins, or spin-offs, but he’s never going away; he’ll always be reborn. And why shouldn’t he? Like most great ideas, there always seems to be plenty more to explore. I wonder if Bram Stoker knew just how immortal his creation would turn out to be and that killing him off at the end of the novel was only the beginning.

Much like Hammer’s Dracula films, the Spanish horror film The Dracula Saga / La saga de los Drácula is a take that explores further possibilities with The Count. With a stretch of the imagination, it kind of works as an unofficial prequel to Stoker's Dracula, but it’s rather more of an alteration of sorts that disregards the events of the original story and takes liberties to imagine what Dracula’s family would be like, with a story told primarily thorough Dracula’s estranged granddaughter, Berta (Tina Sáinz – I could’ve easily seen Emma Cohen in this role as well). Although there are narrations from Dracula at the beginning and at the end, telling the story at the end as if it was his story all along, while the English trailer is narrated by Berta, who claims this is her story, so it's a bit of a toss up as to whose story this really is. 

This was the second vampire film directed by Leon Klimovsky, and it stars Eurobabe favorites Helga Liné and Maria Kosty in seductive vampire roles. It’s gory, silly, nightmarish, gritty, and above all beautifully gothic, a Castilian vampire film from the early ‘70s horror boom. About the only thing that’s missing is the presence of Paul Naschy. I remember coming across this film on the video shelf several years ago and nearly passing on it because Paul Naschy wasn’t in it. I’m glad I didn’t though.
Klimovsky’s vampire films have a certain familiarity to them but are exceptionally unique at the same time and vary quite a bit from one another. They may not be the best paced, with The Dracula Saga being no exception, but they always end up providing me with a special memory, perhaps on account of hitting the sweet spot with their look and feel and also doing something kind of cool and gimmicky, like conceiving a Dracula household in this case. As in The Vampires’ Night Orgy (1974), The Dracula Saga contains another stimulating vampire seduction scene with Helga liné.

The idea of presenting Dracula with a household family does work out well here, and I think the family has a near Addams Family strangeness to them. There’s definitely something epic about it, and it could’ve made for an appealing serialization or a TV drama. Dracula (Narciso Ibáñez Menta) is married to a predatory seductress, Munia (Liné), and has two granddaughters, Xenia (Maria Kosty) and Irina (Cristina Suriani), who are like giddy teenage trouble makers.

The plot device is that Dracula’s son is inadequate to inherit the Dracula title, and so he is in need of another heir to carry on the cursed bloodline. He has called on his estranged granddaughter, and protagonist of the story, Berta, to visit his castle, which happens to be her childhood castle, and ultimately stay. Berta does not yet know her relatives are vampires. She is accompanied by her husband, Hans (Tony Isbert), and she is pregnant. So you can kind of see where this is going.

There is a hidden member of the family, locked up somewhere remote, giving out child-like whimpers that do remind one of House by the Cemetery (1981). This prisoner is Dracula’s son, Valerio, and he is explained by The Count as representing the excess and degeneration of the Dracula ancestors.

I’m not sure what the mother was like, or who she was, but Dracula’s son is a hunchbacked cyclops monster kid with webbed fingers, who murders women that end up with the misfortune of being locked in his chamber with him. Dracula punishes Valerio by whipping him on his hump. This is some weird monster stuff from Klimovsky, almost distastefully weird. The makeup for Valerio is cool, in a vintage Spanish B-horror sort of way. In fact, the movie has good monster makeup in general, although it is used sparingly. There are also a couple of soft focus dream scenes, one with a memorable gore shock.

The film is mostly taking place at night but shot during the day, with little day-for-night filtering; it’s usually just bright daylight. I suppose the filmmakers trusted in our abilities to suspend our disbelief, or the filtering was just neglected in post-production for the most part. And I’m not sure what Klimovsky was shooting for with the net-like lens cover that occasionally pops up, or if it was just some kind of unintentional artifact from the film negative.

Aside from the dream scenes it does have a slow, low-key startup, with Hans and Berta journeying, via horse and carriage, from London to Dracula’s castle, a la Jonathan Harker’s Journal. They even stop off at a hotel in Bistritz along the way, and essentially become prisoners at the castle. The movie takes its time to set itself up with a full episode at the hotel in Bistritz before even getting to Dracula’s castle or even meeting the family.

Many might remember Tony Isbert from Tragic Ceremony (1972) or Inquisition (1978) with Paul Naschy. He’s generally criticized here for underacting, not showing much enthusiasm or emotion, and I suppose that’s true given some of the situations Hans is in, but it doesn’t harm the film much, and I personally don't find anything unlikable about him. Hans is the one who most of the vampire babes in the film have their eye on. 

I did enjoy Tina Sáinz performance as Berta, most particularly her character’s breakdown and unexpected transition from distressed and frightened, as exemplified during the early dream scenes, to a scorned, righteous death deliverer. As an ill, pregnant woman she does spend most of her time in the later parts of the film in a delirious and catatonic state, from mental degradation and weakening from loss of blood, as it is implied that she is losing blood from the inside; I don’t think I've heard of unborn vampire babies before.

The Count here is an elegant, matured nobleman. Narciso Ibáñez Menta has a fantastic look for an aged Dracula. He always seems ready to retire to his quarters. He’s a homebody Dracula who looks like he’s settled in, always in his cozy bedtime robe. It reminds me of the way I usually like to settle in with sweatpants, coffee, and an Edgar Allan Poe book.

What entranced me the most when I first saw this was the pasty green makeup of Berta’s vampire relatives. It is a simple but effective way of achieving an otherworldly, monstrous feel to the vampires. I was left with a precious memory of smiling pale vampire faces, menacing Berta at one of the finest gothic dinner tables in a castle. The wine at the table that’s supposed to insinuate blood looks like Kool-Aid and bright red paint, and judging from Han’s initial reaction probably tastes like it too. It draws attention to the setup similar to the way Countess Bathory's turquoise drink did in Daughters of Darkness (1971).

As usual, the interiors are beautiful and thickly ambient, alternating between medieval crypts to gothic living quarters. The appropriately utilized harpsichord laden soundtrack gives the film a unique flavor and with it an air of authenticity. Interestingly, during the opening credits, the soundtrack is credited to Johan Sebastion Bach, which makes me think the film might take place earlier than the nineteenth century or at least before the events in Stoker’s Dracula, lending slight credence to the farfetched notion that The Dracula Saga is an unofficial prequel.

This is one delicious vampire film that should please all types of fans, as it does meld a lot of classic and new ideas. Despite being kind of lighthearted and not being meant to be taken seriously, The Dracula Saga is an intoxicating horror experience with the right kind of somber, gothic ambiance that makes a great vintage, foreign vampire film, and it will hit all the right notes for Eurohorror fans. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Monster of the Opera / Il mostro dell’opera (1964)

Il mostro dell’opera is not quite what you’d call an adaptation but more an experimental variation of The Phantom of the Opera. But it’s unlikely that viewers will come to this side of Eurocult obscurity just to see what replacing The Phantom with a Count Dracula-esque vampire in a beloved and well-known canon would be like; most probably seek this out because of the movie’s co-writer/director Renato Polselli. I know I did.

If you’re a fan of Polselli’s The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), of which this makes a good double bill with, you are going to love this, and if you’re a fan of Polselli’s delirious S&M fever nightmares from the early ‘70s, you’ll love this too, because Il mostro dell’opera is like a predecessor to Delirium (1972) and Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the Fourteenth Century (1973) aka The Reincarnation of Isabel – minus the turbulent editing. It builds on everything that made The Vampire and the Ballerina a fun time but is progressive in a sense with certain erotic and expressionistic elements that in contrast to its old-fashioned, classic look makes it feel ahead of its time.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “oh no, he’s reviewing another freaking giallo again,” but this isn’t just another giallo.
Short Night of Glass Dolls, Aldo Lado’s directorial debut, is actually quite the surprise, in that it manages to meet, defy, and exceed expectations right up from its mellow start to its killer climax. It interweaves elements from occult horror and the detective thriller into a nonlinear narrative that has a little bit of a Citizen Kane (1941) format and a plot that’s driven by the interesting mystery of what could’ve befallen its unfortunate protagonist. The explanation is pretty much what you’d expect, but the sheer weirdness and the way it plays out, not to mention the alternate Prague setting, causes Short Night to be refreshingly different from the more common giallo of the early ‘70s and yet still look and feel very much like one.

The success of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was still freshly permeating its influence around this time, and it’s no surprise that numerous films continued to capitalize on its black magic, occult, and conspiracy themes, and Short Night is no exception, with murders, kidnappings, and sanity breakdowns feeling orchestrated by some sort of secret order, also bringing to mind The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974).

Monday, August 17, 2015

Les gloutonnes (1973)

With the French productions The Lustful Amazons (1973) and Les gloutonnes, Jess Franco wrote and directed two brazenly erotic takes on Italy’s own Hercules counterpart Maciste, a recurring cinematic hero from the peplum genre with respectable origins dating back to the silent film era, starting with Cabiria (1914). A different character altogether, Franco’s Maciste, played by Wal Davis, is more of a medieval playboy, adventuring to new lands full of sex hungry Amazons, randy mythical queens, and horny Atlanteans, saving the day, satisfying entire tribes, and living to tell about it.
The Lustful Amazons contains some of the most entertaining comedic sex scenes, with top tier Franco babes Alice Arno, Kali Hansa, and Lina Romay, that are quite arousing to watch, and they manage to keep an otherwise underwhelming film lively enough to sit through with a minimal level of enjoyment. On the other hand, the longer sex interludes in Les gloutonnes manage to drag down what is actually an intriguing erotic fantasy/adventure film. The settings for some of the more detached porn scenes, seemingly edited into the film, are dark and surreal (done with Franco’s tendency for up-close body worship) but couldn’t be more unnecessarily drawn out, even in a Jess Franco film, where I’m usually conditioned for such lengthy interludes.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973)

Beyond the Darkness (1979) was my first Joe D’Amato experience and one of my earlier Italian horror revelations, and it quickly ramped up my respect for D’Amato, who, for me, at the time was like the ‘other guy’ who seemed like he was going to be my new grimier gore-master alternative to Fulci and Argento.

D’Amato's Anthropophagus (1980), despite its notoriety, didn’t quite measure up to the expectations I had based on what I experienced from Beyond the Darkness. Incidentally, I did end up ultimately enjoying D’Amato’s line of odd, softcore (sometimes hardcore) Emanuelle films, most of which starred the exotic and goddess-like Laura Gemser. Somewhere along the way, I got ahold of D’Amato’s poetic and beautifully gothic Death Smiles on a Murderer / La morte ha sorriso all'assassino, his first horror film as sole director. I didn’t quite connect with it on the first run, but I’ve really come to appreciate it today.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)

I’ll admit that about three years after seeing The Vampire and the Ballerina (L’amante del vampire) the only thing I could seem to remember about it was the dance numbers. The movie had left a good impression on me for some reason, and I don’t think it was just because of the dance scenes, which were surprisingly sexy for 1960. During a recent re-watch the rest of the movie was like viewing it for the first time. It’s a fun, atmospheric Italian vampire piece from the gothic horror golden age, and after seeing a lot of those, they tend to get lost in the memory over time if you don’t re-watch them on occasion.

This one, along with the same years’ The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960), does have enough sexy gimmicks to help it standout in the mix; and what might also make it a little more interesting to some is that it is an early effort from Renato Polselli, someone whose particular brand of erotic, expressionistic madness touches my heart. Polselli’s cinematic characteristics seen in films like Delirium (1972) and The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973) aren’t quite as apparent in The Vampire and the Ballerina as they would be in Polselli’s Vampire of the Opera (1964) later on, but it’s still a charming attempt at a gothic horror film, in romantic B&W, that Polselli co-wrote with prolific screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi as well as Giuseppe Pellegrini.

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