Saturday, October 01, 2016

Review: Vinegar Syndrome's COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE

Where does one begin with COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE? How does one begin to explain to the uninitiated its bizarre, even unique appeal? Moreso than any other Paul Naschy film, this - his sole interpretation of the Lord of the Un-Dead - seems to have been dredged up whole from his unconscious by director Javier Aguirre. The narrative scenes are terse and choppy, the horror scenes are more static, lurid and indulgent. The costuming belongs to a different place and era, the staid collides with the explicit, and the score seldom varies from the same repeated cue, bonding all the various imagery to a common dream. 

It's a dream that begins when a pair of workers deliver a crate to an abandoned sanatorium, whose cellar they discover occupied by various coffins. Talking in voices that sound provided by Mel Blanc and Slim Pickens, they decide to loot the coffins for some of those jewels that the wealthy dead are known to take to their graves with them. A shadowy figure appears and attacks one of the men. The other races up a flight of stone steps into the falling blade of a hatchet (we never learn who wields it), then tumbles back down the stairs as Carmelo Bernaola's impressionist score kicks in for the first time - spectral, plucking, plinking sounds with shuddery, shimmering emanations from an electric organ. The possibilities within this dream are forecast by the backdrop to the main titles, as the tumbling graverobber rolls below frame only to reappear at the top the the stairs to roll down them once again, and this happens over and over again, his plummet slowed with each entropic repetition to a point approaching Zapruder-like, frame-stepped scrutiny until his final disappearance below the director's credit. In short, the film takes us from the familiar to the ludicrous, from the chilling and beautiful to the uncanny almost before we've had time to draw breath.  

What follows is like the fever dream of a brain permeated by cinema. A coach transporting Imre Foley (Vic Winner) and four women (Rosanna Yanni as "Senta," Marta Miller as "Elke," Ingrid Garbo as "Marlene," and Haydee Politoff -  the star of Eric Rohmer's La Collectioneuse - as "Karen") from Biarritz to Transylvania loses a wheel, and its coachman, not far from the former Castle Dracula, which - according to Imre - subsequently became the sanatorium of a Dr. Kargos (note: cute mash-up of "Karloff" and "Lugosi") who was hung by villagers for conducting cruel and unusual experiments. (Now there's a movie still waiting to be made!) The sanatorium was recently acquired by a Dr. Wendell Marlowe (Naschy), who keeps it available for spontaneous hospitality, because he - evidently like Kargos before him - is in fact Count Dracula, patiently awaiting the fated arrival of a virgin who will love him enough to freely offer her blood for the resurrection of his daughter Rodna, Countess Dracula, and join them in their lifestyle as immortal and damned to an eternal thirst.

The only word for this film - now available in a glorious new Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome - is "delirious." It's a word that also applies to Naschy/Aguirre's other collaboration, the surprisingly Lovecraftian THE HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE (1973), with which it was shot back-to-back. Both films were penned by Naschy under his real name, Jacinto Molina, and throw the genre an unusual curve by daring to tell love stories in the context of the most appalling horror.

In the audio commentary accompanying this new release, both director and star claim to have achieved something new by doing so, and speculate that Francis Ford Coppola's BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA must have worked from their obscure original model. However, "strange love" has been part of the genre going back to a moment in Stoker's original novel when the Count's notice of a keepsake photo of Jonathan Harker's fiancée Lucy suddenly certifies his interest in taking his plans for conquest westward. Terence Fisher incorporated this scene in his widely-seen classic DRACULA (US: HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958), but it was possibly John L. Balderston - who wrote the scripts for Universal's DRACULA (1931) and FRANKENSTEIN (1931) - who first introduced the genre to the idea of a love that conquers time in THE MUMMY (1932), though the idea itself may have come from that film's story writers, Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Shayer. When Italy got involved in the gothic horror revival with Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's I vampiri in 1957, its story took a leaf from THE MUMMY by having its vampiress (Gianna Maria Canale) motivated by her infatuation with the twin descendant of a long-dead love. The film conveyed this idea with the use of an ancestral portrait, a storytelling conceit that also figured prominently in Bava's official directorial debut, La maschera del demonio (US: BLACK SUNDAY, 1960), itself an unusually floridly romantic horror picture - an attempt to deliver something that might please Italian audiences who were not normally receptive to horror. According to his own autobiography, Naschy took his wife to see La maschera del demonio on their honeymoon.

None of these facts disqualify Naschy and Aguirre's claim to having achieved something original with their film. What COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE gives us for the first time is a Dracula who is not only self-conscious and emotionally vulnerable but binary in character. ("Dr. Marlowe" was possibly Naschy's nod to the Dr. Jekyll surrogate played by Christopher Lee in the Amicus film I, MONSTER, made in 1970.) At the end of the picture, the iconic DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1967) imagery of Dracula pulling an unsanctified stake from his chest is inverted as Dracula impales himself through the heart with a stake, the avatar of Evil actually sacrificing itself on an altar of Love. These are all new, and I daresay still unique, aspects of the film.   

The film is a actually quite a catalogue of horror film quotations, beginning with its opening scene with the two delivery men. When they refer in conversation to someone named Barton (like Charles Barton, the director of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN), we suddenly realize they are basically Chick and Wilbur, the delivery men played by the comedy team in that 1948 classic. The idea of robbing the graves of the aristocracy for their jewels originated in Universal's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) and was previously tapped by Naschy in his horror film debut, La Marca del Hombre Lobo [US: FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR, 1968]. Then there's the coach ride through the Borgo Pass as the various passengers (one man, three beautiful women) casually exchange data about the historic Count Dracula, though the time frame of the story (or is it just the wardrobe inherited from other period pictures?) appears to pre-date the novel. Viewers well attuned to horror film history - and to be watching something this obscure, you'd have to be - will readily recognize instances cribbed from THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957 - the old man victimized in the woods), BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960 - the two vampire women in the barn), DRACULA - PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965 - the resurrection of Rodna by slashing the throat of a woman suspended above her coffin) and SCARS OF DRACULA (1971 - Dracula's sadistic flogging of the farm girl), particularly. Naschy's physical appearance as Dracula appears to be closely modeled on the latter. The former weightlifting champion was often been criticized for being too stocky to play the character, but he actually looks trimmer here than in other pictures. There is even a sequence printed in color negative, which Aguirre - on the commentary track - confirms as an homage to F.W. Murnau's NOSFERATU (1922).

At the same time, Aguirre turns up the heat considerably, bolting far past what Hammer Films was doing at the same time with their most liberated vampire films, in terms of what he is willing to show in regard to violence, sadism and particularly eroticism. Naschy's films typically exhibit a macho sensibility and a strong libido, the latter here expressed in terms of lots of bare flesh and richly flowing blood. No one bothers to keep them separated, which is where the delirium kicks in. COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE is a period picture, likely set in the mid- to late 19th century, but its eroticism extends even beyond the norm of its own time - and this is one of the areas where Spanish horror cinema distinguished itself. At the same time, the macho posturing traditional to Spanish horror is curiously absent, as Wendell is portrayed as gentleness itself, the kind of man who  frees rabbits from traps and openly reproaches himself for being seduced by a woman he does not love. It's useful to remember that the people who made these films lived and worked under an oppressive government, and they embraced the liberating traditions of the genre as a revolutionary act. One of this film's revolutionary acts is portraying its central male as vulnerable and its female characters as sexually emancipated and, in effect, all-decisive in matters of life and death.

Adding to the film's special allure is the fact that it was impossible to see uncut or in its original language for many years. It played only briefly under a foreshortened release title (DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE) before, in a subsequent release, it was forced to maraud under the more exploitative title CEMETERY TRAMPS, ensuring that anyone who made its acquaintance theatrically did so by accident. Like many who hold the film dear, I discovered it on local commercial television, where the peculiar spell it weaves was made still more enticing by frequent censorship cuts. In the mid-1980s, I thought I'd finally found my chance to see it uncut when I found a copy on the shelves at my local video store; however, that VHS copy from Ivers Film Services turned out to be a Canadian bootleg of a heavily censored UK release. The film subsequently resurfaced on DVD as an "Elvira's Movie Macabre" release - much too dark, pictorially cropped, and punctuated with Elvira's comic hostess sketches. Prior to this new high-definition release, an uncut copy finally became available on DVD, branded once again as CEMETERY TRAMPS and placed as half of a BCI "Exploitation Cinema Double Bill" DVD with Cirio H. Santiago's VAMPIRE HOOKERS - but it was assembled from more than one print, resulting in patchwork color timing and lighting.

Therefore, Vinegar Syndrome's loving 2K restoration of the film on Blu-ray undoes a curse that the film has had to endure literally for decades. Watching COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE on the Vinegar Syndrome disc is like seeing it for the first time, thanks to its great revelations of bold colors and scenic depth. But it also makes that compliment quite literal, as it includes for the first time the option of viewing the film with its original Spanish soundtrack (it's taken from a rough secondary source element and sounds a bit harsh, but acceptable) with an option of English "dubtitles" (the dialogue as spoken on the English track) or a proper translation of the original Spanish dialogue. 
Even people who love the film (and I count myself among them) will tell you that the English version contains some of the most preposterous dubbed dialogue you're ever likely to hear:

"You haven't changed since college," Elke taunts Senta for being attracted to Dr. Wendell Marlowe. "The only thing you can think of is men. You'd sleep with a broom if it had pants!"

Praised for his scientific acumen, Wendell casually replies, "The true man of science rarely confirms anything; I would say he doubts everything." 

After a romantic moonlight stroll with Wendell, Karen confesses "These have been the most terrible and happiest days of my life!"

And - my favorite - as he prepares to revive his skeletonized daughter Rodna, Dracula addresses Karen by saying "You once belonged to Dracula and now you've returned to his side for the ceremony that signifies the rebirth of his origin."

Though the film is set in the wilds of Transylvania, its working class characters are dubbed like hillbillies and cowboy movie varmints. Whenever Dracula himself speaks, usually in a dull and disembodied voice, his tones are drenched in reverb à la Zandor Vorkov in Al Adamson's DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971) - and when his vampire brides leap from ground level to the awning of a farmhouse, someone thought it would add to the moment to add the sound effect of a pennywhistle. (To my amazement, it's in the Spanish version too, so we can't hold the English dubbers responsible for all its silliness.) However, when all is said and done, some viewers may feel that the quirky English dubbing is part and parcel of the film's peculiar charm, its against-the-grain zaniness adding to its Surrealist qualities. While watching the film in Spanish for the first time, I found that, while it became more coherent in its original design and intentions, it also forfeited a certain quality that has always been central to the pleasure I've taken from it. Nevertheless, the provision of the Spanish track and two different sets of English subtitles ranks high on any list of bonus content in this year's crop of horror films on disc.

The supplements include the aforementioned commentary by Naschy and Aguirre, moderated by Angel Gomez Rivero - obviously recorded some time ago, but accompanied with English subtitles. The subtitles are not very smoothly translated and have a forcedly academic character; nevertheless, Naschy and Aguirre offer some interesting stories about the filming, including a couple of occasions of "occupational hazards" when the actresses nearly died - once in an automobile accident, and again in response to a toxic reaction to the smoke being used in a disintegration scene. There is also a recent 9-minute interview with actress Mirta Miller, conducted by Elena Anele, that finds its subject in a guarded mood and offering only general, vague answers to questions - so it's not too surprising when the filmmakers describe her as difficult and unfriendly in their commentary. The packaging is reversible and includes an 8-page essay booklet by Mirek Lipinski, who includes some fascinating production information as well as Naschy's own recollections of a suppressed sequel that was apparently made - La hija del Conde Dracula vulve ("The Daughter of Dracula Returns"). A DVD pressing of the entire contents is also included.

Order your copy here.

Addendum from reader Tim Tucker: 
"A footnote: the 'strange love' trope goes back at least to H. Rider Haggard's SHE (1887), which shows Ayesha in love with Leo Vincey, who is the reincarnation of her ancient lover, Kallikrates."

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.