It was a fine morning but looked like it might turn to rain by the afternoon. I found myself with the day to myself and no real plans, so even though it was a bit late to start such an excursion, I decided to go hiking. After leaving through a guide on my way to the car, I decided to try a hike called Stairway to Heaven, just south of Harriman State Park and the Hudson Highlands, on the New York-New Jersey border. It looked to be a fairly easy drive to a hike that, the trailhead being out int he middle of nowhere, probably wouldn’t be too terribly crowded.
In the wake of the success of Universal’s 1931 shocker Dracula, there were many attempts to continue and/or cash in on its success, but for one reason or another, Universal itself was never able to capitalize on Dracula the same way it did when it turned both Frankenstein and The Mummy (and later, The Creature from the Black Lagoon) into franchises. Even in the later monster team-up House of… films, Dracula was at best a supporting player, even when his name was in the title, and the vampire prince of darkness didn’t really interact with the other monsters (or the main storyline). The fact that Dracula was so closely identified at the time with Bela Lugosi, and that Lugosi himself never returned to the role (at least in an official capacity), probably hindered Dracula from becoming the same sort of series as did the other Universal monsters. But where Universal failed, others were ready to step in and try to hitch their wagon to the Dracula gravy train…err, or some metaphor like that. Dracula liked gravy, right?
Released in 1958, Return of Dracula comes many years after the Dracula craze in particular and the Universal monsters in general had been relegated to the past in favor of atomic terrors and science fiction. Long enough, I suppose, that someone was thinking it was time for a revival, or that they were feeling nostalgic about the old films. But a lot had happened both technically and stylistically to films in those intervening years, resulting in Return of Dracula having one foot in old style horror and the other foot in something more like the police procedurals and quasi-noirs of the forties and early fifties. It’s a cheap movie, low-key, and boasting no big stars or established horror film icons, which is probably part of the reason the movie was more or less forgotten. It’s not bad at all, though, and it achieves a fair amount of tension rather than scares thanks in large part to a likable heroine in Norma Eberhardt’s Rachel Mayberry and a menacing “monster” in Francis Lederer’s Bellac Gordal, better known perhaps by his older name: Count Dracula.
Dracula, forever harried by vampire hunters in his native country, kills an artist on a train and assumes his identity, immigrating to the united States and settling in with the dead artist’s relatives (who have never met nor seen a photo of their foreign-born relation). Living now under the name Bellac Gordal, Dracula does his best to adapt to suburban American life, attributing his curious demeanor and odd hours to being an artist and a European. All the while, however, he is laying the foundation for turning the quiet, dull town into the focal point of a new vampire empire. When the vampire hunters track him to the town, they have a hard time convincing rational, salt-of-the-earth Americans that these tales of vampires are more than nutty Old World superstition.
Although there is probably plenty of comedy to be mined from a high concept like “Dracula moves to the California suburbs,” this is not the movie in which to go looking for such comedy. Return of Dracula plays it straight, with a Dracula who adapts to his new surroundings with the proficiency of a creature that has had to adapt to new eras and new surroundings many times before. Part of what makes the horror work in this movie is the choice to avoid the yuks and explore, instead, the idea of Old World horrors seeping into the clean, ordered, and thoroughly modern world of the mid-American suburb. As a kid seeing this movie (which I was not), it must have been exciting to think that no matter how manicured the lawns and sterile the environment, there could still be a vampire lurking around the corner. The infection of such familiar and boring a setting with the affectations of ancient evil — ghostly figures, billowing fog, menacing shadows — makes for an effectively chilling juxtaposition of old and new.
I suppose given the era in which this movie was made, one could force a Cold War paranoia subtext into the mix: mysterious Eastern Europeans coming to threaten whitebread, wholesome America. That Lederer comes across less as a monster being pursued by monster hunters and more as a spy on the run also makes it easy to see a Red Menace theme beneath the vampire tale. At the very least, the difference in cultures is exploited as Dracula’s every quirk is attributed to his foreignness by his American “family,” who are welcoming and warm but also ignorant. The arrival of Cousin Bellac gives them — especially young daughter Rachel, just starting to become a woman — a taste of the exotic and non-conformist in sharp contrast to the familiar order around them. Bellac senses this and is able again to cover his tracks and his unfamiliarity not just with being an American, but with being a human, with the anti-authoritarian air of the artist, which only makes him more appealing to the dissatisfied Rachel. His attempts to set up a new vampire “hive” is tantamount to small-town American being infiltrated by an agent seeking to establish Communist cells. It’s also no accident, I would imagine, that Dracula assumes the identity of an artist, with circles of such creative and oddball persons being regarded as hotbeds of Socialism and Communist sympathy.
Dracula movies usually live or die on the merits of their Dracula. Francis Lederer takes a very weird, very different, and for me very successful approach to the legendary count. There is in his portrayal a hint of the “ancient monster awkwardly trying to mimic a human” that underlies Bela’s Dracula, but he is not doing an imitation of Lugosi. Far more than that, Lederer has the paranoid fidgeting and darting eyes of an early Eurocrime villain, like someone who might have wandered out of a Dr. Mabuse film or one of the early Hitchcock espionage thrillers. By all accounts, Lederer was not overly excited to be involved with the film (although not a star, he was a seasoned actor by this time), but whatever disdain he might have had for the low-budget production either didn’t affect his performance or did so in a way that actually benefits the film. He’s weird, disaffected at some times and overly passionate at others, consistently off-kilter and always creepy and threatening without resorting to the obvious.
On the other side of the coin is Rachel. Pure of heart, fresh-faced, giving and kind, yet also starting to question her surroundings. She is not as happy with her dorky all-American boyfriend as she could be. She aspires to be both an artist (fashion designer) and humanitarian (nurse). She is given all the personality tools she needs to be an easy seduction for the vampire/Communist spy as well as the one who can resist him. There is real tension regarding which way she will go. Norma Eberhardt turns in a good if somewhat stilted at times performance, and the fact that Rachel is a genuinely nice and warm character makes the danger looming over her in the living room much more effective. Modern horror has for quite some time depended too much on the assumed desire of the audience to see despicable people punished, which can have its moments I grant you. But I miss when horror would also create real tension by taking someone you like and putting them in a dangerous situation. For me, anyway, that’s a much more sustainable sort of tension (and a lot less irritating to watch than 90 minutes of horrible people sniping and bickering before someone just shoves a pipe through their face).
At the beginning of this article, I posited that a film like this got made because someone thought we were due for a resurgence in supernatural horror after years dominated by atomic age terrors. And they were right, even if it wasn’t Return of Dracula that sparked that revival. Director Paul Landres and screenwriter Pat Fielder were on a vampire kick. Before teaming up for Return of Dracula, they had also worked with each other on the previous year’s The Vampire. It’s not surprising that their vampire films would be very different takes from previous versions of the vampire movie. Landres’ experience was almost entirely in westerns and crime television, and Fielder was new at the game, with only one credit (he co-scripted The Monster that Challenged the World) to his name before he and Landres concocted their vampire tales. Their takes on vampires and vampirism were exceptionally interesting, but audiences weren’t as interested as Landres hoped. They wanted vampires again, just not his vampires. The same year Return of Dracula was released, England’s Hammer Studio released Horror of Dracula, starring Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as an animalistic, force-of-nature interpretation of Dracula. That film, with its more familiar take on the legend, brilliant color filming, exquisite period sets and costumes, shocking bloodshed and sexuality, overshadowed the comparatively low-key Return of Dracula. The classical horror revival happened then, but it happened Hammer’s way and in Hammer’s image.
While I love Hammer horror, it’s too bad Return of Dracula got buried and forgotten. It’s a deceptively fascinating and complex vampire-turned-thriller movie. Being of liberal and artistic leanings myself, I don’t necessarily agree with the message about swarthy Eastern European types infecting wholesome America with their socialist ideas, artistic history, and interesting suits; but I also don’t think this is a cut and dry “foreigners are dangerous” morality tale. After all, it’s the ignorance of the Americans that Dracula is able to exploit to cover his crimes. He plays on stereotypes and expectations. Similarly, it’s more Eastern Europeans who show up and convince the American authorities that something supernatural is in their midst. And the most annoying character is the most gee-whiz all-American boy: Rachel’s well-meaning but lunkheaded boyfriend. Whatever the case, Return of Dracula has a lot to offer. It is, as I said, more satisfying as a thriller than straight horror film, though its moments of horror are eerie and effective. The whole thing is infused with enough menace, paranoia, and lurking menace to keep it tense even when Dracula is just hanging out in his bedroom. Return of Dracula is well worth rediscovering, or if you are like me, discovering for the first time.
Release Date: 1958 | Country: United States | Starring: Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, Ray Stricklyn, John Wengraf, Virginia Vincent, Gage Clarke, Jimmy Baird, Greta Granstedt, Enid Yousen, Robert Lynn, John McNamara, Norbert Schiller | Screenplay: Pat Fielder | Director: Paul Landres | Cinematography: Jack MacKenzie | Music: Gerald Fried | Producer: Arthur Gardner, Jules V. Levy | Availability: DVD (Amazon)
Kaiju films were old hat in Japan by the 1970s, but elsewhere in Asia the giant monster film industry was only just getting going. Inspired by Japanese movies like Godzilla and, even more so, television shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, aspiring (or canny) filmmakers (or hucksters) in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Korea decided they too would pit their cities against giant monsters and invading aliens against super-sized superheroes. South Korea was among the first kaiju copycats out of the gate with 1967’s Yongary. Because it’s Asian and features an irritating little kid in tiny shorts and a dinosaur-like giant monster, most people chalk it up as a Godzilla clone. It has far more to do, though, with that do-gooder crusading giant turtle Gamera and, in my opinion, even more to do with Western rip-offs of Godzilla and Gamera, like 1961’s Gorgo. Eh, whatever the case, a dude in a rubber suit was kicking over buildings and swatting model jets out of the matte painted sky much to the delight of all.
Morning mist was still clinging stubbornly to the ground when we pulled into the parking lot. My partner in crime rubbed the tiredness out of her eyes, which grew wide as soon as she realized what she was looking at.
“Did I lie?” I asked her as I pulled into a parking spot adjacent to the bottom row of chipped white concrete teeth that were part of the lower jaw of a gaping T Rex mouth that served as the entrance to White Post, Virginia’s Dinosaur Land. To our right were two more dinosaurs, one a brontosaurus, the other one of those two-legged beasts that, because no one knows exactly what it is, simply gets called an allosaurus. They were frozen in mid-menace of an Amoco gas station sign. To our left, just visible on the crest of a hill, was a giant octopus locked in mortal combat with a prehistoric shark. In front of us was a sign:
20′ Kong! 60′ Shark! 90′ Octopus! Christmas Shop!
Diamonds are Forever was a bit of a sightseeing vacation for our intrepid 007, a breather author Ian Fleming took in between more substantial books. From Russia with Love finds Bond and the Bond books back in top form for one of the best-loved stories in the entire franchise, films and books. From Russia with Love certainly deserves its lofty ranking, though to be honest, at the end of the adventure, we have another sightseeing excursion for Bond, who operates here as more of a supporting character along for the ride while everyone else does all the work.
It is fashionable, and has been for some time now, for Americans to dislike France. Our one-time close ally, the country that basically bankrolled the American Revolution, that gave the world Brigitte Bardot, Sophie Marceau, and Jean Reno — you surrender early in one little world war, and suddenly the US is holding a grudge against you for decades, exacerbated by your unwillingness to approve the occasional dubious war in the United Nations. Here, however, in this city of bon vivants and coquettes, we harbor no ill will toward our brothers and sisters on The Continent. They simply gave us and continue to give us too many wonderful things, including that statue I see in New York Harbor every day on my way to work.
And they gave us the risque magazine. Specifically, La Vie Parisienne, founded in 1863 as a guide to upper class and artistic life in Paris. Of course, anyone who knows anything about such circles both high and low knows that eventually a bared breast or naked bottom is going to find its way into the discussion, and before very long, La Vie Parisienne became the preeminent publication for those in search of a bawdy jest, juicy gossip, or investigative exploration of some manner of Bohemian life, preferably involving nudity. The magazine became hugely popular, and not just among the Parisienne libertine set. Imitators quickly sprung up, with titles like Le Sourire, Le Rire, Le Regiment, and Fantasio. It was not all about the coy mademoiselle or caddish gent, however, and like the early editions of its eventual descendant, Playboy, La Vie Parisienne also featured articles on style, finances, politics, the arts, and romance. So you could totally buy La Vie Parisienne just for the articles.
But if perchance your eye did stray and was drawn to those spicy illustrations, you would be inevitably greeted by a knowing smirk, a defiant liberty, and playful sauciness that became increasingly popular after the first World War and during the rise of the Jazz Age, flappers, and the tremendous sense of blowing off some steam and shedding inhibitions that did its best to lift the weight off the world’s shoulders during the 1920s. During the Great War, General Pershing himself warned American troops that under no circumstance should they submit their eyes to viewing such filth, which I’m sure resulted in a mysterious spike in sales for the publication. La Vie Parisienne continued to publish well into the 20th century, but with the rise of photographic magazines and increasing brazenness of the publications, the glimpse of stocking or artfully bared bosom from a loose Grecian tunic became quaint and then was surpassed and forgotten. In 1970, the storied and ground-breaking publication printed its final issue, though the name was sold and assigned to a new magazine in 1984, which continues publication now.
But for us here, as one would guess, we prefer the old days and old ways and the artwork of bold pioneers in sly sinfulness and mature mirthmaking like Georges Barbier, Gerda Wegener, Cheri Herouard, Georges Leonnec, Maurice Milliere, Sacha Zaliouk, Umberto Brunelleschi, Raphael Kirchner. There is such a…not innocence about their artwork, but an energy, a happiness, an idea that sexuality and playfulness and intellectualism were things to be loved, celebrated and enjoyed rather than demonized and shunted to the shadows of guilt and self-loathing. Such a joie de vivre. Without them, we might never have had…oh, who am I kidding? Nudie magazines were inevitable, since the first thing we do as humans with any new medium is use it to display each other naked. But still, we honor the magazine that started the ball rolling. So order yourself a French 75, put on some Francoise Hardy, and join us celebrating the magazine that dared celebrate our secret love of decadence and dandyism. On s’est bien amusé, darlings!
By the time Ian Fleming typed out the last letter of Moonraker, he must have been satisfied with his creation but unsure of where James Bond could go from there. The books were pop culture juggernauts, so not following up with yet another James Bond adventure wasn’t really an option for Fleming. But if Diamonds are Forever is any indication of the man’s mindset, then Fleming was either tired of the formula established in his previous books or simply didn’t know what to do. As a result, Diamonds are Forever is markedly different from its predecessors in several ways, though I personally found it to be tremendously enjoyable even if it’s not exactly what people might expect after the bang-up action of Moonraker and Live and let Die. In some ways, it is structured a bit more like Casino Royale, though with the markedly tougher Bond we’ve seen emerge in the books since that initial outing.
When M calls Bond in to his office to discuss diamond smuggling, 007 wonders what this has to do with the secret service. Surely it’s a case for Scotland Yard. But M wants to smash the smuggling operation from one end to the other, and that entails a mission that could carry Bond from England to America and Sierra Leone. It will definitely bring him into direct conflict with the American Mob, a gang of thugs and theatrical gangsters that Bond holds in very low regard. Compared to SMERSH assassins and madmen with nuclear warheads, going toe to toe with the American Mafia should be a piece of cake. So Bond assumes the identity of a diamond smuggler and meets gorgeous American smuggler Tiffany Case, with whom he is instantly smitten, as Bond tends to be with every woman. Bond ingratiates himself to the Mob bosses in New York, a relationship that will lead him to the horse racing mecca of Saratoga, then to the glittering strip at Las Vegas as he seeks out the head honcho in order to deliver a little Bond-style problem solving, as well as extract Tiffany from the mess in which she’s involved.
It doesn’t sound all that unusual on the surface, does it? But what really makes this Bond book different from the last two is that there is very little action. There are only three violent confrontations, and only two of them directly involve Bond. The bulk of this book is comprised of a breezy Bond travelogue. It’s pretty much like Ian Fleming took a vacation in America, went to New York, Saratoga, and Las Vegas, and then decided to jot down his experiences and force a Bond plot into them somewhere. Bond books and movies always have a travelogue aspect to them — it’s one of the things that made them so popular. You could trot the globe in the company of this suave secret agent, learn about exotic locations and cultures and customs, and never have to get shot at yourself. But here, the travelogues aspect is front and center, as we get Bond’s take on New York eateries, where to get a decent bourbon and branch water, why you shouldn’t go to a seedy Saratoga mud bath, and what you can do in Las Vegas while waiting around for a job to explode in your face. The only real action comes when Bond faces down the chief of the American end of the smuggling operation, and then an after-the-fact confrontation with Mob assassins Wint and Kidd. There’s some violence at a mud bath, but Bond spends the entirety of that confrontation cocooned in his mud bath and uninvolved.
The comparative lack of action and travelogue feel are what really make this feel like a tougher version of Casino Royale, to say nothing of the fact that gambling yet again featured in a prominent role, both in Las Vegas and at the horse races in Saratoga. But this lack of action doesn’t make for a boring book. In fact, I found Diamonds are Forever to be quite engaging despite the fact that it’s really not much more than Ian Fleming taking a short breather before launching into From Russia with Love. Diamonds are Forever is a short book, and it never gives itself time to be boring. Even though there’s not much action, there’s always something going on, and the entire thing is written at a snappy clip that makes it all feel very chummy. It really does feel like you’re on a road trip with Bond. Also, as of this book, despite the vodka martini being his signature drink, I think Bond has actually consumed more bourbon in the series than he has martinis. As someone with an affinity for bourbon but mere tolerance for the taste of a martini, I appreciate Bond’s fondness for my drink of choice. The vodka martini may be his secret weapon, but old fashioned bourbon is his trusty Beretta. Incidentally, Bond favors Old Grandad. For my money, I say go with Elmer T. Lee or Hancock Reserve.
Diamonds are Forever also features the return of Felix Leiter, last seen lying in a hospital bed after being mauled by a shark in Live and Let Die. Physically, he’s a little worse for the experience, sporting a hook hand and fake leg, but otherwise he’s still the same delightful Felix Leiter, and his presence — he’s since retired from the CIA due to losing his shooting hand, and now works as a private investigator for Pinkertons — only serves to heighten the feeling of chumminess that pervades this entry in the Bond series. Tiffany Case is also an excellent Bond girl — much better than her portrayal in the movie, which was overly shrill and whiney. In fact, she’s easily the most memorable and fully fleshed out female accomplice yet presented in a Bond story, and I suspect she’ll remain that way even as I progress further into the series. The supporting cast is an eclectic collection of characters that would have made Raymond Chandler proud. There’s Shady Tree, the hunchbacked and temperamental gangster who runs the New York end of the smuggling ring. There’s Wint and Kidd, two members of the so-called Lavender Mob — a collection of homosexual men who have honed their skills as assassins and enforcers. And then there’s Spang, the boss of the whole U.S. operation, who spends his free time dressed up as a cowboy and hanging out with his thugs in a replica Old West town. Bond learns that, although American mobsters are indeed over-the-top and theatrical in their mannerisms, they’re also very good at what they do, and very dangerous to have as enemies. Bond’s arrogance is definitely on display when he takes the assignment, but it’s safe to say he learns a valuable lesson by mission’s end.
The leaders of the Spangled Mob, as it is called, aren’t the best Bond villains, and they’re fairly poorly developed, especially after Mr. Big and Hugo Drax proved to be such memorable villains. It seems like Fleming was interested in making this Bond adventure more of a lark — still full of violence, but more like an old detective novel than a spy story. Bond sort of goes with the flow for most of the story, and makes some crucial and obvious errors and misjudgments (his inability to identify Wint and Kidd from Leiter’s descriptions being the most glaring). With the slightly absurd villains and locations, as well as the gumshoe plot, my aforementioned reference to Raymond Chandler seems particularly apt. It wouldn’t take a whole lot of tweaking to turn this into a Philip Marlowe novel.
Obviously, there’s very little similarity between this novel and the Bond movie by the same name, which saw the welcome return of Sean Connery to the role after replacement George Lazenby proved to be such a nightmare to work with (although his sole Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, remains one of the best). The movie uses the diamond smuggling plot and Vegas location, but drops the simple, streamlined Fleming tale in favor of a typically Bond movie production involving SPECTRE, the seemingly indestructible series villain Ernst Blofeld, and a giant doomsday space laser. It does throw Wint and Kidd into the mix for good measure, but the film version of Tiffany Case is intolerable, even though actress Jill St. John is a grade-A bombshell. She plays Case as a smart alec airhead, though, which couldn’t be any further from Felming’s characterization of her as a smart, hard-nosed beauty cut from the same cloth as the femme fatales of the film noir era. Still, it has more in common with the source material than the cinematic Moonraker did, and about the same amount as Live and Let Die.
Although it’s easy to discount Diamonds are Forever as one of the lesser Bond novels or as an afterthought or placeholder in between more substantial stories, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s tremendously fun to read. It’s a slim volume and goes by very quickly, and what it lacks in action it certainly makes up for by simply being a quickly paced and highly agreeable travelogue. I’m assuming it has a lot in common with the short story “James Bond in New York,” which I haven’t read yet since I’m going in order. If you want a quick reference guide to Bond’s lifestyle while visiting America, here you go. Not essential reading, but still fun reading, and recommended.
There are a lot of pluses and a good number of minuses to living in a place like New York City. Among the pluses is that, if you time it so as to miss the traffic and drive in the right direction, it doesn’t take long for the city itself and its surrounding sprawl to melt away and be replaced by the forested peaks and craggy ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains, or whatever it is that the yankees up here have named them. Ninety minutes can put you anywhere from the Delaware Water Gap along the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border to Bear Mountain along the Hudson River, or maybe the Shawagunks in New Paltz, home to some of the best climbing on the east coast.
“Hold on, hold on!” I shouted into the cell phone pressed against my ear in a vain and laughable attempt to seal out the cacophony of a passing delivery truck with a faulty muffler as it scurried out of the way of a fire engine.
“I can’t hear a damn thing,” I said, more to myself than to the distant, tinny voice trickling forth from the phone and struggling to be heard over the din with a determined might (or is it desperation?) not unlike that exhibited by those baby sea turtles who plunge for the first time into the unforgiving sea and must paddle wildly in flight from the myriad predators lined up to gobble them whole. I did my best to pin the phone between my shoulder and head so I could free my hands for scrawling down the directions on the rare event that I was able to hear them. Let’s see. Downtown F train at West 4th. Take that to the Carroll Street stop in Brooklyn. Leave the subway station and look for 2nd Street…
I am a sucker for a lot of things. A pretty smile, a nice pair of legs, a bottle of bourbon. I’m also a sucker for a good cave tour, or even a bad cave tour, and if you want to read some horrifying Freudian meaning into that, be my guest. It won’t affect my enjoyment of women, liquor, or cave tours in the slightest. A grew up an easy day trip to Mammoth Cave, the biggest cave system in the world, or at least that’s the record as I remember it. And my grandfather’s farm was pock-marked with caves, many of which were large enough for a kid high on Mark Twain adventures to explore, provided they weren’t staked out by a pack of wild dogs. That I have never outgrown my fascination with caves means that, even at my more advanced age, I rarely pass up a cave tour.