When innovative Shaw Bros. studio director Chor Yuen teamed up with martial arts novelist Lung Ku and the Shaw’s top kungfu film star, Ti Lung, they made beautiful music together. In 1977 the trio collaborated to create two of the best martial arts films ever made, Clans of Intrigue and Magic Blade. The success of the films, as well as their recognition as some of the greatest looking films to come from the martial arts genre in decades, made it a pretty simple decision to keep a good thing going. Less than a year after audiences were dazzled with the complexly tangled web of swordplay, sex, and suaveness that made up Clans of Intrigue, the trio got together for a sequel called Legend of the Bat. Legend of the Bat is about Ti Lung smirking and stabbing people and trying to unravel a mysterious plot chocked full of secret identities, ulterior motives, and booby trapped lairs. In other words, it’s more of the same, and the same is worth getting more of when it’s as cool as Clans of Intrigue.
There are certain films that become associated with one indelible image. For example, it’s hard to think of North by Northwest without conjuring a mental picture of Cary Grant being chased by that crop-duster, or of Singin’ in the Rain without immediately seeing Gene Kelly hanging off of that lamppost. In the case of the Filipino action film They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong, the image that invariably comes to mind – for those familiar with the film, at least – is that of comely star Marrie Lee brandishing an imposing looking, quadruple-barreled, sawed-off shotgun while dressed in a nun’s habit and wimple (thanks, El Santo).
While they were certainly responsible for their share of cinematic flotsam, American International Pictures can also be credited with creating a good few films that are today considered genre classics, as well as some films that are extraordinary solely for the fact that, given the circumstances of their production, they were even made at all. As far as AIP’s ventures into the Blaxploitation arena go, 1973’s Black Caesar definitely falls within the former category, while its sequel, that same year’s Hell Up In Harlem, serves as a perfect example of that last mentioned type of film.
Black Caesar was initially conceived by writer/director Larry Cohen as a vehicle for Sammy Davis, Jr. Instead, he ended up taking the project to AIP, where it became hitched to the star of former pro footballer and emerging blaxploitation leading man Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. While I think that this was probably the best outcome for all involved, I have to admit to growing a bit misty at the thought that, had things worked out differently, I might now be reviewing a film in which Sammy Davis Jr. beats a white man to death with a shoeshine box. In any case, AIP had already struck black gold with 1972’s Slaughter and Blacula, and saw Cohen’s reworking of the classic gangster film formula for a black milieu as a suitable next step in their venture into the black action genre. From this point, it was only a matter of second-time director Cohen hitting the streets of New York with his camera and delivering the goods.
Made in eighteen days for less than half a million dollars, Black Caesar went on to become a big hit, and AIP were quick to demand that Cohen provide a sequel as soon as possible. Adding to the time pressure on Cohen was the fact that his star, Williamson, would soon be leaving the country for some shooting overseas, which meant that production had to begin more or less immediately. Unfortunately, Williamson was at the time stuck in L.A. — far from Black Caesar‘s New York locations — filming That Man Bolt for Universal, while Cohen was working five days a week to complete It’s Alive, the first of his reputation-making creature features, for Warner Brothers. The solution that Cohen came up with to this problem was to shoot Hell Up In Harlem on the weekends using his It’s Alive crew and equipment, trying all the while to cope as best he could with the fact that he had neither his main actor or anything close to a completed script on hand.
Now, if you were a religious person, you might look at the obstacles that Cohen and his crew faced and conclude that Hell Up In Harlem was a film made in defiance of God’s will. And if you were a religious person and a fan of Black Caesar, you might look at the finished product and conclude that you were doubly justified in that opinion. Still, the lengths that were gone to complete it, combined with Cohen’s “shoot first, ask permission later” guerilla filmmaking style, make Hell Up In Harlem just about as good an example as you could find of classic B movie, seat-of-your-pants filmmaking, as well as a crystalline artifact of a long gone era in the American movie game.
While filming Hell Up In Harlem‘s many New York location scenes, Cohen employed a mixed bag of tricks in order to conceal Williamson’s absence, including frequently shooting from his character’s point-of-view. His primary ruse, however, involved the use of a double — always shown either from behind, at a distance, or with something obscuring his face — whose presence was later augmented by the insertion of close-ups of Williamson that were filmed in L.A., as well as a generous amount of post-dubbed Williamson dialogue. Cohen also managed to shoot quite a few of the film’s interior scenes in Los Angeles, relying a great deal on his Coldwater Canyon home as a location (Cohen’s wood paneled home office, in particular, shows up in a couple of different guises throughout), with the result that, once he was able to get Williamson to New York for some brief location shooting, those actors who had appeared in the Los Angeles scenes with Williamson, but could not make the trip back East, had to be doubled themselves. Given this patchwork approach, it’s a testament to Cohen’s ingenuity that the seams in the finished product are less obvious than they might have been. Nonetheless, it has to be said that, even when you don’t consciously notice them, they still contribute to the overall impression that there is something ineluctably “off” about Hell Up In Harlem –- and that’s without even considering those dialog scenes in which it’s all too clear that you’re watching actors performing monologues in completely different locations.
As far as the writing of the film went, Cohen basically decided to make up the considerable, unscripted portion of Hell Up In Harlem‘s story as he shot. In this case that meant that he not only structured the narrative to accommodate Williamson’s absence (of which the most absurd instance is the placing front-and-center of the character played by Julius Harris — the father of Williamson’s character, Tommy Gibbs, who was a comparatively minor presence in Black Caesar), but also around whatever locations became available at any given time, whichever of Cohen’s friends and acquaintances happened to decide they’d like to be in a scene, or just whatever off-the-cuff scenario struck the director’s fancy at the moment. Surprisingly, given Cohen’s background as a screenwriter, working outside the confines of a script proved to infect him with a serious case of directorial ADD, since much of Harlem‘s footage turned out to be of exactly the capricious nature described above, with the result that he essentially had to “write” the film in the editing room with the aid of lots of randomly inserted narrated exposition.
Given all of the above, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone that Hell Up In Harlem is a film that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Even I, a man who has managed to provide coherent synopsis of films watched on un-subtitled Hindi and Cantonese language DVDs, shudder at the thought of reigning its disparate narrative components into a recognizable structure. This is largely due to the fact that Cohen, whenever presented with an opportunity to shoot an improvised scene, seems to have invariably made that scene one involving Fred Williamson killing some anonymous actor or friend of the production who happened to be on the set that day. Such opportunities clearly arose quite often, with the result that Harlem consistently connects its plot points by way of countless scenes of our hero offing characters who we have not previously seen and will never hear mentioned again.
One of the casualties of this approach is the idea that Hell Up In Harlem is anything but a sequel to Black Caesar in name only. Black Caesar, after all, was a relatively sober effort — one that, with its grim story of an inner city gangster’s precipitous rise and calamitous fall, stood in contrast to most other films in the Blaxploitation genre, which had a tendency to present their heroes as invincible black supermen who always triumphed over adversity in the end. Hell Up In Harlem, on the other hand, by positioning Williamson’s character as simply the driving force behind a string of randomly connected, violent action set pieces, becomes exactly the type of film that Rudy Ray Moore and D’Urville Martin were parodying with Dolemite. Even Tommy Gibb’s trademark limp –- an injury sustained at the hands of the film’s villain at the beginning of Black Caesar, and a motivating force for Williamson’s character throughout –- is gone here, making it that much easier for Williamson to sprint back and forth from one nonsensical bit of mayhem to the next.
In this spirit, Hell Up In Harlem spends it’s opening act frantically undoing everything that Black Caesar established in its last scene. This is necessitated primarily by the fact that, in the overseas cut of Black Caesar, Williamson’s character ends up dying an ignominious death at the hands of a gang of vicious street urchins. Or, at least, so it would appear. Because, as we see at the beginning of Harlem, Tommy Gibbs has not, as we have been lead to believe, either alienated or caused to be killed every last one of his friends and associates, but instead still has a gang of loyal flunkies ready at the call to come to his rescue. Not only that, but Tommy’s formerly absentee father (the aforementioned Harris), whose sheepish overtures of conciliation were harshly rejected by Tommy in the first film, is also waiting anxiously by the phone and ready to pitch in. From here it’s just a matter of the gang getting Tommy patched-up, which turns out to be a simple matter of taking over Harlem Hospital at gunpoint — a scene that was essentially accomplished by Cohen and his crew, on very short notice and without shooting permits, taking over the real Harlem Hospital at camera-point.
It is exactly that practice of “stolen” location shooting, practiced by Cohen with neither a union crew or the benefit of permits, that, along with the improvised nature of the production as a whole, marks Hell Up In Harlem as an artifact of, not just a lost style of filmmaking, but also of an America that, in spirit, has long since ceased to exist. Often filming from a concealing distance and with one camera, Cohen and company here pull off things that, if attempted in a major city in today’s security-obsessed United States, would result in them being thrown in jail at best and taken down by a SWAT team at worst. These stunts range from having gun-waving actors run down the middle of crowded mid-town Manhattan streets to sending cars careening along city sidewalks — with, in that last instance, the only precaution being ropes hastily strung across doorways to prevent the innocent from straying into harm’s way. Of all of these, though, the one sequence that really seems to have originated from some strange yet familiar shadow Earth is one that was shot — if Cohen is to be believed, at least — without permission at LAX, in which Cohen stages a fight between Williamson and actor Tony King that takes place on a baggage carousel in front of a crowd of stunned and very real travelers. To top this off, the director then has his combatants run up the luggage shoot to continue the fight on the actual airfield, after which we’re treated to the sight of Williamson strutting around on the tarmac with an airliner taxiing just yards away. For those of us living in today’s locked-down society, scenes like that amount to a veritable pornography of unfettered access. And, whether you love or hate Hell Up In Harlem, you simply have to thrill to the spectacle of combined institutional innocence and individual chutzpa that they present.
Once Tommy Gibbs is again at large and in charge, Hell Up In Harlem introduces us to a new villain, corrupt District Attorney D’Angelo (Gerald Gordon), who, if I understood correctly, turns out to have been behind everything that happened in the first film. There is still a lot of talk about a pair of ledgers containing the names of on-the-take politicians that motivated a good deal of the first film’s action, but Tommy’s primary concern is with getting payback against those who brought about his downfall, which, of course, turns out to involve him and his gang randomly killing a bunch of unidentified people who are only notable for their complete absence from Black Caesar. Somewhere in all this, Tommy’s mild mannered dad ends up killing a couple of crooked cops in self defense, putting himself on the wrong side of the law as a result. The only proper response to this, of course, is for dad to officially become part of Tommy’s gang, a turn of events which somehow leads to him being put in charge of his son’s entire East Coast operation. “Big Papa” quickly grows accustomed to the pimping threads and lavish lifestyle that such a position entails, and we are soon treated to a montage of Julius Harris gleefully gunning people down that nicely bookends a similar montage of Fred Williamson that we saw toward the beginning of the picture.
To accompany all of this nonsense we have a soundtrack by Edwin Starr that literally provides a song for every occasion. Seriously, if Cohen had asked for a theme to accompany someone walking across the street, Starr would have come up with a song called “Walkin’ ‘Cross the Street” that consisted of nothing but him shouting the phrase “Walkin’ ‘cross the street” over and over again on top of a driving funk track. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, until you consider that James Brown, who also scored Black Caesar, had already provided a score for Hell Up In Harlem that was written and recorded entirely on spec. Unfortunately, the execs at AIP had been unhappy with Brown’s soundtrack work on Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off –- apparently Brown had a problem with timing his compositions to match the action on screen –- and rejected his Harlem score over Cohen’s objections, leaving Brown to release the work as The Payback, which is widely considered to be the last great album of Brown’s career.
Despite Hell Up In Harlem‘s many problems, I have to say that I think I prefer it over its predecessor. While it’s certainly true that Black Caesar is the more earnest and ambitious of the two, I don’t think that the abilities of Cohen and his cast were always up to that level of earnestness and ambition. Williamson, for instance, while undeniable blessed with a glaring surplus of charisma, gives an enthusiastic performance in both movies, but is seemingly incapable of giving a convincing line reading, with the result that Caesar’s level of melodrama is really not his friend. Leading lady Gloria Hendry, on the other hand, is just a little too cozy with melodrama, and comports herself throughout much of her screen time in both films as if she were chained to the wailing wall. Factors like these, along with the rough edges of Cohen’s direction, combine to make Black Caesar a bit of a bumpy ride for fans of consistent narrative tone. By contrast, Hell Up In Harlem, with its frenetic opening deconstruction of Black Caesar‘s final act, lets you know from the get-go that it’s going to be a wild ride through crazy town, and never disappoints.
One way that Hell Up In Harlem gains a lot is if you simply appreciate Cohen’s random set pieces on their own terms without attempting to tie them in with any larger narrative, because the fact is that many of them evidence a crazy sort of amphetamine-edged inspiration. The most famous of these is the entirely pointless scuba assault by Tommy and his gang on a mob summit being held on an “unnamed island off the Florida Keys”. This sequence involves, among many other things, a kung fu fight between Williamson and a bikini babe, a body count seemingly in the triple digits, and middle-aged black women in maids’ uniforms smiling serenely as they gun down central casting goombahs who, if anyone had bothered to name them, would surely have to a man gone by either “Guido” or “Sal”. Another highpoint is a hit that takes place at a hotdog stand that leaves all of its victims with half-eaten hotdogs sticking out of their mouths. And of course let’s not forget the scene in which Williamson sprints across a crowded Coney Island beach to pole vault the sharp end of a beach umbrella into the chest of yet another unidentified and previously unseen character.
Hell Up In Harlem‘s final scene sees Tommy lynching D.A. D’Angelo with his own necktie while crowing about how he’s “the first whitey hung by a nigger”. This was intended by Cohen as a topper to the previously referenced final scene in Black Caesar, in which Gibbs makes his white nemesis wear blackface and sing “Mammy” before beating him to death with a shoeshine box. It fails of course, which is not surprising. From the sound of it, the scene, like much of Hell Up In Harlem, was made up on the spot, and owed its existence to Cohen just happening at that moment to make a visual connection between Gerald Gordon’s tie and a convenient tree branch. Still, the scene is a fitting conclusion, in that it so appropriately sums up the spirit of Hell Up In Harlem as a whole. It is at once off-the-cuff, ultimately pointless, and, at the same time, possessed of that fascinating aura denoting a thing that someone, at one very particular time, and for only one fleeting moment, thought was a great idea, even though it totally wasn’t.
And then someone rolled film, and it was too late to turn back.
Release Year: 1973 | Country: United States | Starring: Fred Williamson, Julius Harris, Gloria Hendry, Margaret Avery, D’Urville Martin, Tony King, Gerald Gordon, Bobby Ramsen, James Dixon, Esther Sutherland, Charles MacGuire, Mindi Miller, Al Kirk, Janelle Webb | Writer: Larry Cohen | Director: Larry Cohen | Cinematographer: Fenton Hamilton | Music: Fonce Mizell, Freddie Perren, Edwin Starr | Producer: Larry Cohen
Reviewing the types of films that I do, I’ve become no stranger to mixed feelings. Korkusuz Kaptan Swing, for example, while leaving me less excited than other of Onar Films’ DVD releases, still feels like it should be a peak experience for me. After all, it’s a Turkish film that’s based on an Italian comic book that’s set in an imaginary America during the Revolutionary War. For someone as obsessed as I am with how the familiar gets refracted, refined and/or re-imagined through the lenses of different filmmaking cultures, you’d be hard pressed to concoct a more tantalizing recipe — unless, of course, you were to concoct a Thai movie that teamed Ultraman with a Hindu monkey god, or another Turkish movie in which Santo and Captain America join forces to fight a caterpillar-browed Spiderman. Neither of those two films, however, hold up a funhouse mirror to a well-tread episode of American history the way that Kaptan Swing does. And it is that strange depiction of my country’s forefathers’ struggle for independence that, more than anything else, makes the film come across to my tired Yankee eyes as being a product of a place oh, so very far from home.
At the end of the day, I have to shrug and surrender to my baser side and say that Michael Carreras probably needed to be kicked in the shin at least once. Possibly more than once, but at least once. Allow me to explain myself. Michael Carreras was the son of Hammer Studio founder James Carreras, and he used that relationship to finagle himself a more or less permanent fixture in the hierarchy of the studio, until eventually the reigns were passed to him entirely and the whole show collapsed. Now not everything with the name of Michael Carrereas on it was an embarrassing display of nepotism. In fact, there is much about Michael’s involvement with his father’s studio that is of high merit. He served as producer for most of the studio’s best films. As a director, he was a mixed bag, but he did manage to deliver The Lost Continent, one of Hammer’s loopiest and most hilariously daft adventure films. And after directing a decidedly pedestrian follow-up to Hammer’s smash hit The Mummy, he redeemed himself somewhat by stepping in to finish the job of directing the superb Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb when original director Seth Holt passed away. No, there is much about Michael’s tenure at Hammer that is worth celebrating. It’s just that at some point in the 1970s, he lost his fucking mind.
I think by now, we’ve covered the demise of Hammer Studio in the 1970s enough times that I don’t need to go into much detail here. You should know the drill by now. The Hammer formula, which had been so bold in the early 50s and throughout the 60s, failed to keep pace with changing social values and cinematic trends so that, by the end of the 1960s, their once fierce and rebellious content looked quaint and old-fashioned compared to what everyone else was doing. Studio head Michael Carreras was thus desperate to right a sinking ship and discover some way to keep the studio afloat. On top of that, however, was lumped the general collapse of the British film industry, meaning that Carreras suddenly went from trying to save a sinking ship to trying to save a sinking lifeboat tied to a sinking ship. It is not, obviously, an enviable position in which to have been. But it was not an unwinnable situation, as other studios would prove. The key was to adapt. But it was with the task of adapting that Carerras proved singularly untalented despite — and likely because of — all else he’d accomplished.
Horror films had changed dramatically, thanks in large part to the pioneering films of Hammer. With the release of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen, horror showed a marked move toward not just Satanic-themed films, but toward more cynical “evil triumphs” films. While major studios were finally deeming horror a genre worthy of their attention, low-budget and independent film makers were turning out stuff like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, far more visceral and completely different from anything that had come before and certainly much more extreme than anything Hammer was willing or even able to produce with the BBFC looming over them. The focus of horror shifted significantly from England tot he United States, and since the United States had always been a major market for Hammer’s product, they found it hard to compete with the home team. Things were no different in mainland Europe, where the Italian giallo thrillers were also pushing the envelope far beyond what British censors would allow Hammer to get away with.
The boys from Bray may have pushed the envelope in terms of sex and violence for ten years, but by the time “The End” appeared, good usually triumphed and the creature, either tragic or evil, was vanquished. But these new horror films were happy to let evil win. There was no way Hammer could compete with that, just as there was no way they could compete with a major Hollywood studio taking an interest in horror. Lower budget American horror film, largely produced by American International Pictures and their imitators, surpassed in sex and violence the Hammer product that had helped inspire them so many years before. AIP, in particular, seemed to understand that while there would always be big studio horror films aimed at adults, for horror to survive as a whole, a shift had to be made away from adults and toward teenagers. Teens, since the early days of AIP, had played a central role in the success of the studios films. Post World War II, there was a whole generation of young people who began earning money not to help the family survive, but so they could spend it on the stuff they wanted. Most films, however, were aimed either at adults or children. AIP stepped in and made movies for teenagers, and the results were solid gold.
Hammer, by contrast, had never really targeted teens as an audience. When, toward the end of the studio’s lifespan and desperate for some new revenue stream, Hammer finally tried to throw a bone to the younger generation, it was generally pretty feeble and had the feel of old men trying to write in the persona of a younger person about whom they knew next to nothing. Thus you get the goofball but not unappealing mixture of 60s mods and early 70s hippies that show up in Dracula AD 1972. But even disregarding the screwy attempts at seeming young, Hammer wasn’t speaking to the kids. Whenever AIP made a movie for teens, they were keen on making sure there were as few adults present as possible.
Those who were, were often ineffectual authority figures, crackpots, or oppressive parents against whom we rooted for the kids to rebel. In the end, it was the younger generation that saved the day, usually in some way that involved a surfing competition or young hot rodders zipping around a small southwestern town in their dune buggies. Hammer, by contrast, could never really divorce itself from authoritative paternal figures. So while Dracula AD 1972 may have been full of hep kids spewing misguided attempts at youth slang, it’s stolid old Peter Cushing who sweeps in to clean up the mess and save the day. And as photos have proven and our friend El Santo has said, you can dress Peter Cushing up in a hip hop jacket and baseball cap, but there’s still the stuffiest stuffy old man suit in the word beneath it all.
So Michael Carreras was creating a no-win situation for himself. On the one hand, he wanted to find something new and invigorating for the studio to do. On the other hand, his ideas were terrible and all seemed to revolve around comedies about people tripping while going up the steps of a public bus. On the one hand, he said Hammer needed a new direction, something away from horror or more in line with what modern horror had become. On the other hand (Hammer had a lot of hands), at the end of the day, all he could think of was to do the same old, same old, but with more nudity. He wanted to do something different, then he complained when directors tried to do something different. In a word, Michael Carreras was lost.
I don’t know what blinded him exactly other than having too many fires to deal with while being too stuck in his old ways, because the remedy he needed was right in front of him. With the tanks of both the Dracula and Frankenstein films very nearly empty, Hammer turned to three other stabs at vampire films in hopes that something might stick and give them a new franchise that would keep the studio hobbling along for at least another year. The most successful of these attempts was the Karnstein trilogy, three films based loosely on Carmilla and notable for being the point at which Hammer finally shrugged and started showing boobs (thanks largely to the involvement of AIP as a production partner). The trilogy produced two of Hammer’s very best horror films (Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil) and one of their very worst (Lust for a Vampire). The second attempt was Vampire Circus, in which the studio attempted to put a twist on their vampire theme by looking toward the dreamier, more hallucinogenic horror films of continental Europe (specifically France and Italy). It’s a very good movie, but it was simply too weird for Hammer, and possibly too weird for most British and American audiences, or so thought Carreras.
The third attempt was a curious combination of the studio’s tried and true vampire formula mixed with a dash of the old swashbuckling “pirate movies without pirate ships” Hammer made in the early 60s, combined with something Hammer had never put in any of their previous horror films: a sense of humor. This was Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, and it remains my very favorite Hammer film and one of my favorite films in general. A pity that Michael Carreras didn’t see things the way I did.
While Hammer in the 70s may have been flailing, that doesn’t mean they didn’t produce a lot of great movies. In fact, it was likely because the studio was in such dire straights that they were willing to try almost anything — or at least claim that they would try almost anything, sort of like how I’ll claim to eat anything at least once, until someone actually calls my bluff and tries to stuff a grub in my mouth. This meant that an influx of new talent emerged from the long shadows of Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster, and the rest of the extremely talented but rather aged old guard. Among the men employed by Hammer to try to freshen things up a big was Brian Clemens, best known at the time as one of the integral parts of the hugely popular British television series, The Avengers. In that way, perhaps, Hammer had hired one of the very men who was helping to destroy the studio. The success of The Avengers was unparalleled, and while it may have started out initially as just a television show, by 1967, it was being shot in color and boasting production values that would rival many films. On top of that, the series had the perfect blend of old guard, represented by Patrick MacNee as John Steed with his bowler and suits, and new — as embodied first by Honor Blackman, but then taken to a whole new level by Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. The scripts hewed to a basic formula, but they were highlighted by smart dialog and witty banter between the two incredibly likable leads. And even Steed, despite looking every bit the British gentleman, had a streak of rebelliousness and irreverence that made him appealing to younger viewers.
Production company ITC was quick to follow the example set by The Avengers, and before anyone knew it, British television was full of action and adventure series that were in color, trotted the globe (or at least parts of England made up to look like the globe), and took far more risks than more expensive, slower to adapt movies. If you were a bright young writer or director looking to do something unusual, you were much better off working on one of the many ITC shows — first espionage and, in the 70s, bad-ass cop shows. I don’t have the data to claim that these high production value shows were the main reason the film industry was hurting, but they certainly made a dent.
When Clemens got the chance to direct a film for Hammer, he went for it (The Avengers having wrapped up by that time). The story he brought with him was very much of The Avengers mode, with a sassier female character than Hammer had ever had before, a script full of wit and dark humor, and perhaps most striking of all, a hero. As Clemens described things, part of the problem he saw with Hammer’s Dracula films wasn’t so much that they were slaves to convention; it was that Dracula was the hero, or the anti-hero a the very least. Even though you knew he would die at the end, you still went to root for Dracula, because the people lined up as his nominal opponents were so incredibly forgettable and had been since the third film. Gone were the days when you had a hero as charismatic as Peter Cushing to cheer for. Dracula, Prince of Darkness had that gun-toting friar, but since him, who was there to go against Dracula? A seemingly endless parade of trembling clergymen and forgettable young blond guys named Paul. For lack of anything else, audiences began to side with Dracula — which is a testament to just how boring the heroes were, since Dracula usually had about five minutes of total screen time and spoke like three sentences.
Clemens wanted to change that, to give audiences a vampire movie where the vampires were the bad guys again and where there was a proper hero for whom people could root. For this character, Clemens drew largely upon the swashbuckling heroes of the past, and so was born Kronos, a vampire hunter — possibly immortal himself — possessed of a mysterious history, a knowing smirk, and a professor friend who, while older and wiser, is far away from the “knows what’s best for you” paternalism of Cushing’s Van Helsing. There was something of the counter-culture about both Kronos and his adviser, Professor Hieronymos Grost. Grost’s knowledge, after all, is of an arcane and in some cases profane nature, and if Kronos was a captain in some army, it must have been the same army as Oddball from Kelly’s Heroes. They seem both to have eschewed the traditional authoritative hierarchy of academia and the military in favor of just cruising around on their own, doing their own thing. This lack of respect for authority extends as well to other circles of the upper class: religious leaders, community leaders, the rich and powerful — Grost and Kronos seem happiest away from these types, camping out in a barn with a hot servant girl they rescued from being executed.
Clemens further twists the traditional vampire movie formula by proposing a world in which there are as many different types of vampires as there are types of dog, each with its own unique characteristics, powers, and weaknesses. In another nod to the film’s appeal to youth over tradition, the vampires against which Kronos finds himself pitted do not drain their victims of blood, but of youth. Likewise, the way in which you kill one vampire might not work on another (a conundrum which results in the film’s most devilishly funny scene, in which Kronos and Grost cycle through the entire array of ways they know to kill vampires, until they finally find one that works). In a way, this representation of vampires is a natural outgrowth of the theories on vampirism presented by Cushing’s Van Helsing way back in Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula. Back then, before Dracula became a Satanic prince of evil and conjured demon, Van Helsing framed the vampire in purely scientific terms. They were a part of our natural world, albeit a part that did not conform to the behavior one expected of creatures who looked like humans. Vampirism was a communicable disease rather than some Satanic curse or the result of corny rituals. Captain Kronos seems to pick this thread up and expand it, creating an entirely new species within which there are many natural variations.
Although I can’t say for certain if it was intended as such, it also works as a pointed satirical jab at the vast proliferation of ways in which you could kill and resurrect Dracula that were created out of necessity to facilitate yet another sequel. By the end of things, vampires were being killed by stakes, crucifixes, icy creeks, hawthorn bushes, lightning, windmills…who could keep track? So in the world of Kronos, you never quite know what will kill a vampire. Tradition does not work. Nor do you know exactly what effect its bite will have on you. As I said, I don’t think it’s an accident that the vampires in this film prey upon the young and drain them of their youth. In the climate of the 1970s, it’s the established powerbase exploiting the young, crushing them under the weight of an increasingly creaky traditional society, draining them of their vitality even as the vampires feed upon it for their own energy.
Although other Hammer films had taken swipes at certain established authority figures — witness, for example, the corrupt men in Taste the Blood of Dracula, or the ineffectual and cowardly priest in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave — this one the first time since perhaps The Pirates of Blood River that the studio gave audiences an uppity, charismatic, young firebrand willing to buck the system. Hell, Kronos even smokes the occasional 18th century doobie! At last, there was a Hammer movie and a Hammer hero that young people could actually get behind and perhaps even relate to. Someone who was more like one of them rather than like a parent, standing around waiting to disapprove and tell the whippersnappers how to properly do things.
Clemens’ movie is different right out of the gate. Just as he was a Hammer outsider, working with a cast composed largely of newcomers and outsiders, he also went outside the norm in searching for a composer and a style of music to accompany the film. He tapped Laurie Johnson, who had worked previously on The Avengers, among many other projects for film and television, to give the movie a theme that stood in stark contrast to the masterful but overly familiar “Hammer horror sound” created primarily by James Bernard. Bernard’s scores were heavy, bombastic, and thunderous. Johnson’s theme for Captain Kronos, however, is fast-moving and much lighter. It’s a combination of a theme from a swashbuckling film with the theme from a horror film, very much a reflection of Grost and Kronos themselves. Where as Bernard’s themes stalk and stomp, Johnson’s theme here gallops and parries.
Far away from the three piece Harris tweed and pocket watch look of most vampire hunters, Kronos is a mixture of pirate and soldier in appearance, with bushy blond hair and a rapier. Grost, by contrast, is a bespectacled, goateed hunchback, though he’s far from grotesque. They are two halves of a whole — the muscle and charm in Kronos, the brains and wit in Grost. For the lead role, they cast German actor Horst Jansen, and he certainly looks the part. Tall, confident, sexy, and swaggering. Even though they’re in the same profession, there’s very little of Van Helsing about the man. Kronos looks less likely to have been spending his days steeped in researching of arcane folklore and more likely to be lying on the beach, a tan young woman on one side and his surfboard on the other. What he learns, he learns through experience or via the wise counsel of Grost. Unfortunately, Jasen’s limited English results in something of a wooden performance, though for me it never really mars the film, as he’s carried by John Cater as Grost, a more than capable actor who is so good and so charming in his role that you don’t even notice most of the time that he’s a hunchback — though on occasion I mistook him for Lenin. Luckily, Grost is way more fun to be around and is a lot less likely than Lenin to have you executed for some trifle.
The duo is en route to a town that has been plagued by a series of mysterious attacks on young people who are found after the attack drained of decades and aged to the point of death. Kronos stops to liberate a beautiful young gypsy woman (Caroline Munro, recently featured in the studio’s Dracula AD 1972), who has been condemned for something Kronos and Grost find idiotic by men whom Grost and Kronos find equally idiotic. Thankful for her liberation, she swears servitude to the two adventurers, and while neither man seems overly keen on having a slave, neither does any man seem to find much fault in being accompanied everywhere by Caroline Munro in a peasant blouse with a plunging neckline. And later, when she offers herself to Kronos, he does what any man would do, and does not hesitate. A hero who smokes weed and enjoys sex? Where do they come up with this crazy stuff?
Kronos and Grost have been summoned by their old friend, Dr. Marcus (John Carson), who resides in the beleaguered town and knows that his two friends specialize these days in dealing with such peculiarities. Kronos, in particular, has it in for vampires, as both his mother and sister were killed by one. And while the process of draining a victim of youth rather than blood is slightly beyond the pale of a traditional vampire, Grost recognizes that tradition only accounts for a small percentage of what people know or don’t know about vampires. Soon the gang is on the case, sword fighting and riddle solving their way to the culprit behind the strange murders.
The overriding philosophy behind this movie seems to be that Hammer horror hadn’t been scary for a long time, and it wasn’t going to be scary anymore. So why not make one that was exciting? And that’s exactly what Clemens did. Captain Kronos moves fast and boasts plenty of action. Jansen may be a bit stiff with his lines, but he looks good in a fight scene, and he gets plenty of them. Clemens’ experience with television meant he knew a lot about taking a meager budget and limited sets and making them seem far more lavish and expansive than they actually were. The result is one of the best looking films Hammer made during the period. Clemens made a lot of use of outdoor locations, which when coupled with the tone of the story makes Captain Kronos feel much more epic than the largely soundstage-bound Dracula films. He pulls off an epic feel, or at least a mini-epic feel, in much the same way John Gilling did when directing the “pirate movies without pirate ships” for Hammer a decade earlier.
The supporting cast is top-notch. Cater and Carson are old hands, and they deliver the goods as all solid British pros know how to do. Caroline Munro was on the fast track to becoming an icon, and while her role here as the gypsy Clara isn’t as iconic as, say, the space bikini in Star Crash, it’s still a role that is both energetic and sexy. There’s something about the woman that simply transcends everything. They really don’t make them like her anymore, do they? While her role here may not be as meaty as the lads’, it’s still one of the best developed female roles Hammer ever had. There’s no doubt as to why she became an icon. She has more charisma than my brain can even process.
If Hammer was looking for something new, a franchise upon which to hang the fortunes of the studio, they had found it. Captain Kronos is just that good. Unfortunately, Carreras was waiting around like one the youth sucking vampires from the movie. In Carreras’ own words, he visited the set one day to see how things were going and was aghast at what he saw. Clemens and his crew, Carreras felt, were not handling the material with the proper gravitas. Instead, they were making light of things, having a bit of fun, injecting a wicked sense of humor into a previously humorless genre. Clemens did not, according to Carreras, get it. He didn’t understand the proper tone of a Hammer horror film the way the old guys did. In other words, Carreras hired Clemens to give him something fresh and inventive, and then he got pissed off when Clemens gave him just that.
As much as Carrereas’ attitude irritates me, and as much as it embodies everything that was wrong with Hammer’s attempts to adapt to the changing times, it’s hard to lie the failure of Captain Kronos to become a franchise player entirely at the feet of the floundering studio head. Audiences had already lost interest in Hammer. The studio was done for. It would have taken a miracle to save it, and while Captain Kronos is cracking good entertainment, it’s not a miracle. Along with audiences, distributors had lost interest in Hammer as well. One of the things that had kept Hammer afloat was their fruitful partnership with American distributors. But those days were over, because Americans were doing Hammer better than Hammer, and under a ratings code that was far more liberal than what the British Board of Film Censors wanted to be. As such, it took almost two years for Captain Kronos to get released, and by that time, the game was over. Hammer had used up the last of its audience good will, and viewers didn’t embrace the film despite the fact that the few reviews it received were generally positive.
It’s a shame, isn’t it? Clemens vision for Captain Kronos as a film series was pretty cool, with Kronos appearing throughout different periods across the centuries, carrying on his battle with the undead and revealing that there was a much longer history behind the man than has hinted at in the first movie. When it was evident that there was no way Hammer was going to make it, and thus there would be no second or third Kronos film, talk shifted to production of a television series. Nothing ever came of that, either, and with the exception of a few appearances in a Hammer comic book, Kronos faded from existence until more recently, when it was rediscovered and people started thinking, “Holy crap, this movie is great!” Now it enjoys a lace in many people’s top five Hammer films, making it sort of the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service of the vampire movie world.
Which is doubly fitting since that once-maligned entry into the James Bond Franchise was saddled with a stiff leading man and found itself situated in a time when the series was trying to recover from the loss of the iconic Sean Connery (and the rise of social discontent). Like Horst Jansen, George Lazenby was top notch in the action scenes though, and just as Horst had a cool sidekick and a gorgeous gal, Lazenby was carried by a cool ally and the best Bond girl of all time, The Avengers‘ Diana Rigg.
What’s more, it’s a shame Hammer couldn’t pull out of the collapse. Maybe if Captain Kronos had been a bigger box office hit, and maybe if Michael Carreras had shown a little faith in the film, then Hammer could have made good on that tantalizing poster art for movies they intended to make but never had a chance to get to. Don’t tell me you don’t want to see Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls or didn’t hope Hammer wold make good on all that cheesecake nudie sci-fi artwork on the poster for When the Earth Cracked Open. Sure, they probably would have ended up less like the insanely awesome movies in my mind and more like one of those “lost world” films from Amicus Studio, but you know what? I loved those “lost world” movies from Amicus, so I would have been pretty psyched to watch something in which cheap looking little models of biplanes and blimps go head to head with wobbly pterodactyls on strings.
But those are exercises in what might have been, and while fun, the fact is there was never a Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls or a Captain Kronos series. No Kronos fighting vampires down through the ages. What we have instead is a single Captain Kronos that happens to be an incredibly good film. It’s really everything I want from my entertainment. Fast paced, witty, irreverent but also a very good entry into the genre with which it is toying. I don’t think I’d argue that there aren’t flaws for people to find in the film, but if they are there, I’m not really all that concerned with finding them. Had this been the last film Hammer made, it would have been a perfect swan song. Our heroes, riding off beyond the horizon to face down evil. Would we ever see them again? Who knows?
Instead, Hammer ended up with a few more death twitches and even more misguided attempts at finding a new market. Among these were an ill-advised attempt to replace the lost American market with the exploding Hong Kong market by partnering with the Shaw Brothers studios to produce two films: the plodding action caper Shatter starring Stuart Whitman and Shaw Bros superstar Ti Lung, and the entertaining but ridiculous Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, starring Peter Cushing and Shaw Bros’ star David Chiang. Both were attempts to cash in on the rising kungfu craze, and both failed. In the case of Shatter, it was hard to convince audiences that they should stop watching Bruce Lee and Five Fingers of Death and concentrate instead on a movie in which Stuart Whitman wanders around. It was like trying to convince Hong Kong audiences in the 80s to stop watching Jackie Chan and embrace Steven Seagal. Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires featured Cushing as Van Helsing, traipsing around China, but it never really feels like an actual Dracula film — possibly because venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee finally made good on his boast and refused to appear in the picture, even though Dracula transforms into a Chinese guy in the very beginning of the picture. Instead, it feels like a Shaw Brothers kungfu film into which Peter Cushing wandered by accident. It’s pretty fun, in my opinion, but there’s no mystery as to why it wasn’t the film that salvaged Hammer’s reputation.
The end to Hammer horror finally came in 1976, in the form of To the Devil…A Daughter, Hammer’s painfully horrible attempt to cash in on the devil worship movie craze that seized us in the 70s. Too bad the film was dreadful — in my opinion the only completely unwatchable horror film Hammer ever made. It’s too bad Kronos wasn’t around to put that one down before it sucked so much life out of us. But so it goes, and whatever might have happened doesn’t change how much I enjoy Captain Kronos.
I suppose I’m happy to be watching these films after the fact. I’ve never felt that Hammer films were stodgy or old-fashioned, or that they had dated poorly, but that’s probably because I’m watching them from a vantage point removed from the original cycle. If I’d been able to write reviews in the late 60s or early 70s, I probably would have been complaining about the lack of originality, so on and so forth. I love Hammer films. I love the old ones. I love the ones from the 70s. Heck, I even enjoy failures like Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and Lust for a Vampire. In nearly two decades of film production, Hammer made one solitary horror film I can say I hate. That, my friends, is not a bad record, and I guess if I’d been in the shoes of Michael Carreras, I would have been as confused as he was. But then, I’m just a writer and a fan, not the head of a studio. I expect more from him than I would from myself, what with how it was his job and all. I appreciate everything the pioneers did — Jimmy Sangster, Terence Fisher, James Bernard, John Gilling — my God but they made some incredible films. And I love the years in which Hammer was trying to figure the strange new world out. I love Twins of Evil, Vampire Circus, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and I don’t hate Lust for a Vampire or even Horror of Frankenstein. So flailing or not, misguided or not, with the final credits having rolled on Hammer (I’ll believe the persistent “we’re back!” press releases and announced productions when I see at least one final product), all I can do is raise a glass of brandy to them (I prefer scotch, but what would Peter Cushing say?) and say, with complete earnestness, “Thank you.”
H.P. Lovecraft may not be one of the best writers in the world, but he’s certainly one of the most fun to read — not to mention imitate. For this reason, I got it in my head that it would be a great idea to read The Dunwich Horror aloud to my wife. She not only loves to be scared, but is so committed to the endeavor that she’s even on occasion been willing to meet Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror movies halfway. That’s a perfect attitude to bring to Lovecraft, in my opinion, because he’s an author you really need to be willing to work with. In cracking open one of his stories, you’re making an implicit agreement to be scared; otherwise it’s just not going to work. Of course, Lovecraft does his part to help you along in that regard, always letting you know exactly how afraid you’re supposed to be, even when the object of that fear remains somewhat sketchily defined, and also modeling the desired behavior by populating his stories with characters who launch into paroxysms of terror at the faintest fetid odor.
With the combination of my wife’s gameness, Lovecraft’s semaphore-like emotional cues, and the fact that the mildewed pages of the 1970s paperback edition of Dunwich I’d found gave off a scent that, with a little imagination, could be interpreted as being primordial, we were, as far as I was concerned, all set. However, after five solid pages describing the blighted landscape of Dunwich town, my wife made clear that she wasn’t having it, saying something to the effect of, “What is this shit?” All of which is not to discourage you from reading Lovecraft to your own spouse or significant other; but it’s certainly important to make sure you’ve done the proper amount of prep work.
By the way, the old Jove paperback of The Dunwich Horror that I purchased features a cover illustration that is a very literal depiction, based on Lovecraft’s description in the story, of Wilbur Whateley in his true form, which looks like the upper half of Golem from Lord of the Rings grafted onto something that looks like a cross between the lower half of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a pineapple, and one of those cat-shaped wall clocks whose eyes move from side to side with the second hand.
I imagine that Lovecraft’s tendency to devote more words to telling his reader how scared he or she should be than to describing the thing to be feared posed a problem to those filmmakers initially assigned the task of bringing his work to the screen. After all, until the advent of modern J-Horror — whose sensibility is pretty much right in line with Lovecraft’s — the common wisdom would have been that you were supposed to scare your audience by showing them something scary, rather than by just showing them a bunch of people being scared, or, even worse, showing a bunch of people talking about how potentially scary some vaguely defined thing might be if it it actually existed. Furthermore, such filmmakers might understandably conclude that a film whose every character was in a constant state of near-wordless cowering for no clear reason might quickly forfeit audience interest.
It is this last conviction that might explain the casting choices made in connection with director Daniel Haller’s first Lovecraft adaptation for AIP, Die, Monster, Die!. A veteran art director, Haller had also worked in that capacity on AIP’s initial Lovecraft outing, The Haunted Palace, directed by Roger Corman. While by no means a close adaptation of its source material, Die, Monster, Die! did an admirable job of achieving Lovecraft’s patented mood of mounting dread and creeping, formless horror. The only departure from that — and it’s a radical one — was the placement of American actor Nick Adams at its center, probably the most un-Lovecraftian protagonist imaginable, who would be much more likely to call the great Cthulu a “jerk” and punch him in the nose than to simply be driven mad by the impossibility of his existence.
When it came time for Haller to make his second Lovecraft adaptation, 1970s The Dunwich Horror, he and screenwriter Curtis Hanson chose to add another very un-Lovecraftian element to their quintessentially Lovecraftian tale with the introduction into the mix of a sweaty dose of eroticism. Lovecraft’s stories, with all their references to tentacles and other undulating protuberances coming out of things at all angles, were certainly sexual — if in a repressed/hysterical way — but they were far from sexy. In fact, judging from the man’s writings alone, I’d imagine that any attempt by him to describe any normal type of human sexual congress would be one of the most excruciatingly awkward, squirm-inducing things you could possibly read. If there does not exist somewhere a porn parody written in Lovecraftian prose, or myriad examples of erotic Lovecraft fanfic, then the internet truly has no right to exist. It’s not for me to put the effort into finding out, though. Of course, the concept seems less strange when you consider that it was no doubt partly a result of AIP fulfilling their early Seventies mandate to serve up at least some explotational content with every offering. But the whole enterprise rockets back into the realm of the unnamable when you consider that the actors they chose to place at the center of all this heat and steam were Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell.
The Dunwich Horror was something of a landmark for Sandra Dee, in that the Gidget star was required by its action to spend much of her screen-time writhing and moaning orgasmically on a sacrificial altar while in a state of near undress, and even to treat the audience to a brief flash of her — possibly body-doubled — breasts. Of course, Dee was at an unavoidable crossroads in her career by this time. The wholesome, girl-next-door image that had propelled her to stardom in the early sixties was now not only hopelessly out of sync with the times, but also impossible to maintain now that she had undergone a very public divorce from her husband Bobby Darin. Given these factors, that she would slam her knockers out in an AIP picture was probably as inevitable as it was surprising.
On the other hand, Dean Stockwell’s transition from sweet-faced to unsavory had been accomplished long before he arrived on the Dunwich set, with any memories of the adorable child star he used to be forever tainted by roles such as that of the effeminate child murderer in 1959’s Compulsion. To say that Stockwell comes off as a “little” creepy in The Dunwich Horror would be the Mona Lisa of understatement. From the nervous sidelong glances, to the unwavering hushed monotone, the speech riddled with odd pregnant pauses, and the intent, wild-eyed staring, his performance is, in fact, the whole creepiness package, without one unsettling tick left behind. Of course, given he was charged with portraying a character who, in the original story, was depicted as being a goat-like, preternaturally intelligent, prepubescent eight foot giant who conceals beneath his garments a body that is part T. Rex , part pineapple and part cat clock, you could forgive him for over-compensating.
By the way, my writing this review gave me the opportunity to allay a misconception about Dean Stockwell that I’ve been entertaining for quite some time. I’ve long had this vague notion, which I had the nagging feeling wasn’t true, that he had some kind of strong Walt Disney affiliation. This turns out to be due to me confusing him with that star of countless, animal-themed, live action Disney movies from the sixties, Dean Jones, a man who is creepy in his own right, though in a quite different, more Disney-like way than Dean Stockwell. Now, thanks to Teleport City’s stringent research standards, I can tell you with utmost certainty that Dean Stockwell absolutely, positively did not star in That Darned Cat!, The Ugly Dachshund, Monkeys, Go Home! or The Million Dollar Duck. In fact, during this period in Dean Jones’s career, Dean Stockwell was playing roles like that of an acid-tripping Haight-Ashbury hippy in Psych-Out. So, how wrong can you be, really?
Aside from being the movie that tried to generate sexual heat between Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell, The Dunwich Horror is notable for being one of the AIP Lovecraft adaptations that — like The Haunted Palace, but unlike Die, Monster, Die! — directly addresses the author’s much vaunted Cthulhu Mythos. Granted, it may not do so with enough authenticity to satisfy fans of the author, but much lip service is indeed given to such touchstone concepts as “Yog-Sothoth”, “The Old Ones” and the “The Necronomicon”. However, as alluded to above, both the Old Ones — that ancient race of unimaginable non-human creatures who, according to Lovecraft, once ruled the Earth and are itching to return — and their followers are portrayed as being much hornier than in any of Lovecraft’s tales. Their most fully-formed emissary in the human world, the unnamed “thing” locked up in a mysterious upstairs room in the Whateley house, seems to be most concerned with first ripping off all of its victim’s clothes when it encounters its first human prey. Similarly, the rituals that Wilbur (Stockwell) must perform in order to summon the Old Ones back into our dimension seem to mostly involve him feeling up a drugged and prostrate Sandra Dee and reading incantations while standing between her splayed legs.
There is a familiar feel of that smarmy, late-to-the-party seventies version of hippie free love to all this, though, of course, in a much more overtly sinister form. It’s a tone that’s driven home even by Les Baxter’s main theme, a narcotically swooning swinger’s revelry with a decadent European sensibility that could just as easily have come from the mind of Serge Gainsbourg or Michel Legrand. Mind you, I don’t think this quality detracts from The Dunwich Horror. I think that an adaptation of Lovecraft’s work for a more permissive age would have no choice but to address the creepy sexuality that underlies it, and Haller’s take here is indeed suitably creepy. That this imperative was put in the hands of a studio like AIP, who was more than happy to deliver on the required nudity and implied sexual shenanigans, just represents a fortuitous dovetailing of interests.
The potent sex magic that Dean Stockwell wields in The Dunwich Horror — at least as it applies to Sandra Dee — is shown to be pretty much in full effect from the very opening moments of the film. It is at this point that we meet Dee’s character, Nancy Wagner, a student at venerable old Miskatonic University. Her professor, Dr. Armitage, has entrusted her with the between classes errand of returning his surprisingly crisp looking copy of the ancient book of forbidden knowledge, The Necronomicon, to the school’s library. The mention of the book’s name attracts the twitchy attentions of the proximately lurking Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell), a visitor to the university from the nearby town of Dunwich whose consummate creepiness is matched only by his single-mindedness. Wilbur follows Nancy to the library and asks her to let him see the book before she replaces it in its case. She resists at first, but it is only a matter of Wilbur making whammy eyes at her for a few seconds before she relents, despite the objections of her obviously unaffected friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala). Wilbur makes off to hungrily devour the tome’s contents, only to be intercepted by Dr. Armitage, who rents it from his grasp with a stern rebuke. This bit of awkwardness does not preclude the four of them from going out for a drink at the pub later, at which time Wilbur engages Dr. Armitage in a conversation that goes more or less like this:
Wilbur: Can I see the book?
Wilbur: Can I see the book?
Wilbur: Oh, Okay, but… can I see the book?
Dr. Armitage, by the way, is portrayed by the veteran character actor Ed Begley, a man who played supporting roles in almost as many classic film noirs as Elisha Cook Jr. He’s a great, if unusual, choice for the role, because, while he’s appropriately gray and distinguished, his history of playing tough guy roles gives him a two-fisted air decidedly at odds with the tremulous demeanor of the typical Lovecraftian academic. That may not make his character authentic to the text, but it certainly makes him a more credible opponent to the forces he’s up against, and when he and Wilbur face off to shout incantations at one another at the movie’s conclusion, you get the sense that you’re seeing a dramatic showdown between more or less equally matched adversaries — a markedly more satisfying and movie-like conclusion than if the makers had stuck with the finale as presented in the book, in which a bunch of frightened old men cower in the rain while shouting spells and praying that Yog-Sothoth doesn’t kill them.
Wilbur eventually manipulates circumstances so that Nancy has to give him a ride back to his creepy old house in Dunwich, and, once there, sabotages her car so that she has no choice but to spend the night. Nancy is already falling increasingly under Wilbur’s sway by this point, so she raises little objection to this turn of events, but Wilbur still drugs her drink just to be on the safe side — possibly because, in her chemically-induced stupor, she will be less likely to notice the ominous gurgling sounds coming out of the locked room at the top of the stairs. That night, as she slumbers, Nancy dreams that she is being groped and chased by a bunch of hippie mud people who caper around and mug at the camera as if they were auditioning for the Broadway production of Yog-Sothoth: Superstar. This experience seems only to increase Wilbur’s hold over her, and the one night’s stay extends to a series of days, as, all the while, it becomes clearer that Wilbur is grooming her for a very specific purpose, a purpose that is more than hinted at when Wilbur shows Nancy the ancient sacrificial altar perched atop a desolate hilltop near his home.
Once Wilbur has finally gotten his mitts on the Necronomicon and set in motion the rituals necessary to bringing the Old Ones back into the world of men, The Dunwich Horror, like the story it’s based upon, sees out its final act as a pretty sweet little monster on the loose story. The film is helped greatly in this regard by the fact that Lovecraft described the unnamable thing locked up in the Whateley house, once freed, as being mostly invisible to human eyes. This enables the filmmakers to represent it through some pretty effective shots of trees being rent about by unseen forces, an interesting use of negative effects, and reaction shots of the monster’s horrified victims (one of whom is played by a very young Talia Shire). All in all, it’s a satisfyingly apocalyptic payoff to the slow-burn piling on of unease that makes up the film’s first hour, and even survives the fact that, once we do catch a fleeting glimpse of the beast, it appears to be Dean Stockwell wearing a mask made out of plastic snakes.
While the sleazy, swinger’s leer that The Dunwich Horror affects certainly dates the picture — and may go some way toward undermining its scare factor for modern audiences — the film in most respects still holds to the high standard set by AIP’s earlier gothic horrors drawn from the works of Poe and Lovecraft. As with those films, the modest budget is compensated for by both a handsome production design and a studious attention to the creation of a pervasive atmosphere of dread and foreboding. Bolstering that is a range of reliable, if somewhat over-the-top, performances by a cast made up of stolid old troopers, among them Sam Jaffe as Wilbur’s grandfather and Lloyd Bochner as Armitage’s ally, Dr. Cory. Only Sandra Dee, out of all the performers, seems to be holding back, but the fact that she comes off as a bit narcotized is actually in keeping with her character’s situation. Still, it’s a bit odd that Dee, who had not all that long before been a fairly major star, agreed to take a part in a film in which she really ends up being more of a prop than a character.
And pondering that image of Sandra Dee, lying prone and half-conscious while being the subject of all kinds of uninvited groping, I might be inspired to reconsider my previous statement about what might constitute The Dunwich Horror‘s true source of horror for modern audiences. After all, isn’t the thought of being groped by a leering, permed and mustachioed Dean Stockwell really the definition of horror at its most profound and unnamable? More courageous souls than I have doubtless been prompted to tear off and eat their own faces at the mere thought. In fact, if that’s the only way to purge that image from one’s mind, I recommend that we all do that right now.
See you on the other side of madness!
Release Year: 1970 | Country: United States | Starring: Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, Ed Begley, Lloyd Bochner, Sam Jaffe, Joanne Moore Jordan, Donna Baccala, Talia Shire, Michael Fox, Jason Wingreen, Barboura Morris, Beach Dickerson, Michael Haynes, Toby Russ, Jack Pierce | Writers: Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, Ronald Silkosky | Director: Daniel Haller | Cinematographer: Richard C. Glouner | Music: Les Baxter | Producers: Roger Corman, Jack Bohrer
You’d think that the isolation of Soviet-style communism would have at least shielded the citizens of East Germany from the worst excesses of seventies fashion, but the 1976 space opera In the Dust of the Stars tells us otherwise. Neither, apparently, did it prevent the creatives at the state-run DEFA studio from falling under the influence of such decadent western cultural products as Jess Franco movies and the swinging sci-fi TV series of Gerry Anderson. That this film never saw release on this side of the Iron Curtain is no surprise, given that the vision of a socialist utopia it presents — marked by free love, frequent casual nudity, and a distinctly lopsided female-to-male ratio — is one that many healthy young Western men could easily get behind. The resulting sudden spike in defections Eastward would have been truly crippling to national security.
Shunya Ito’s first entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was essentially a women-in-prison picture that combined the action, violence and titillation typical of that subgenre with a striking number of audacious artistic touches. Ito’s second entry, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, was a whole other animal entirely. Emboldened, perhaps, by the success of the first film and the amount of creative leeway given him by Toei, Ito this time largely dispensed with genre trappings and delivered a film that was even more obviously the product of a singular directorial vision. Relentlessly bleak and harrowing, yet suffused with a desolate, breathtaking beauty and daring sense of visual invention, Jailhouse 41 is like a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.
One of the most obvious changes that this second entry makes to the Scorpion template is in the presentation of its heroine. The fact that the first film had dealt with the pedestrian niceties of back-story allowed Ito — aided by another astonishing performance from his star, Meiko Kaji — to free Matsu/aka Scorpion from the moorings of earthbound considerations of character and move her completely into the realm of archetype. As such, Kaji portrays her as an extra-human engine of vengeance with a nuclear core of rage forged from the countless injustices done her by men and the corrupt, male-driven society that they represent: In short, the terrible price of all her nation’s sins given human form.
While Female Prisoner #701 sought to provide Matsu with a narrative that gave her recognizably human motivations, Jailhouse 41 renders all of that irrelevant by telling us everything we need to know about her character in a brief, opening credits sequence of startling power and economy. It is this increased sure-handedness that relegates the first film — although an impressive and unique work in its own right — to being clearly the least of the three Scorpion films that Ito directed, and marks Jailhouse 41 as the film in which the series came decisively into its own.
In Jailhouse 41, Ito builds a lot upon those elements of his creative arsenal that he put to use in the first film — his visual references to traditional Japanese theater and the use of hallucinatory sequences involving horror movie-like imagery among them — but he also introduces many new ones. One of those is his practice here of having the actors freeze in tableau during certain scenes — something that comes off looking a lot weirder than a simple freeze frame would. Creative sound design also plays a much bigger part in this film, and even extends to abruptly cutting the sound completely at some points in order to better portray — as many of these effects are intended to — Matsu’s interior reality. It is this expressive use of sound that serves so well to make our introduction to Matsu in Jailhouse 41 such a memorable one.
The film begins with an echoing, disembodied female voice repeatedly calling the name “Sasori” (Scorpion), as if in incantation, as the camera snakes through the dark, cavern-like hallways leading down into the bowels of the prison. Finally we reach the door to Matsu’s subterranean cell, and the haunting call gives way to a steady and methodically persistent scraping sound. As the sound continues, we see Matsu, lying with her hands chained behind her back on the damp floor of the dungeon-like cell, her back to us, much as she was at the beginning of the last film — though this time, we will learn, she has been chained alone in that cell for a full year’s time. We are unable to make out the source of the sound until the camera moves around to face Matsu, at which point we see that she has clenched tightly between her teeth a metal spoon, which she is tirelessly working to sharpen by scraping it repeatedly against a very well-worn groove in the concrete floor — her face all the while frozen in a look of cauldron-eyed fury that is almost terrifying beyond description. As the credits roll, she is shown over the course of time (Days? …Months?), her position changing very little as she ceaselessly sharpens away, the piece of metal clasped in her jaws gradually transforming from a spoon into a blade. By the time this sequence is over, we have seen more than enough to convince us of Matsu’s preternatural singularity of purpose, and wouldn’t doubt for a minute that she could spend the entirety of a year in sleepless pursuit of fashioning an implement of vengeance.
As the credits end, Matsu’s labor are interrupted by a visit from the warden (Fumio Watanabe). Since losing his eye to Matsu in the first installment, the warden has clearly become as obsessively dedicated to Matsu’s unhappiness as she is to his, and he informs her in no uncertain terms that he intends for her to be locked in her underground tomb forever — with the exception of today, when she will be briefly trotted out in order to keep up appearances for a visiting prison official. The warden further informs her, with some regret, that he has accepted a promotion that will place him outside the prison, and, as a result, he will no longer be able to personally supervise her constant brutalization. Matsu responds to this news with a subtle amplification of what I referred to in my review of the first film as THE LOOK, letting us know that she sees this as her last chance for payback.
That look, now honed to a lacerating acuity, will get a serious workout over the course of Jailhouse 41. Because, while Kaji’s performance in the first Scorpion film wasn’t a particularly verbal one, her turn here renders it positively chatty by comparison. Matsu speaks a mere two lines over the entire course of the film, both of which occur within the final fifteen minutes and are comprised of less than four words (and one of which, “You sold me”, is, fittingly, a testament of betrayal). This makes Kaji’s performance here even more of a wonder to behold. Certainly, there are moments in which Matsu speaks through action, but it is those moments of stillness — of watching, of waiting — that most indelibly define her character. Given this, Kaji’s take on Scorpion comes across as nothing less than an iron-willed assertion of sheer presence — and goes a long way toward justifying her cult icon status today.
When Matsu is herded into the prison’s exercise yard — manacled and, by all appearances, barely able to walk thanks to her months spent in chains — we see that her long absence from the general population has made her something of a legend among the other inmates, and her presence is greeted by them with hushed awe. Propped up by two guards, she is forced into formation with the other prisoners as the visiting official walks among them, spouting stultifying rehabilitory bromides. Matsu is less hobbled than she seems, however, and, when the first opportunity arises, she make a lunge for the warden. She fails narrowly in her intended goal of taking out the warden’s remaining good eye, but succeeds spectacularly in putting the fear of God into the visiting official, who promptly drops to his knees and shits in his pants. Inspired by Scorpion’s example, the other prisoners run riot through the yard.
Punishment comes for the inmates in the form of hard labor in the rock quarry, though Matsu is relegated to simply walking among them with a heavy cross-shaped tree stump lashed to her back. Observing this, the warden lets the guards know that, if their intention was to break Scorpion’s influence over the prisoners, their semiotics are a little off. He instead proposes to humiliate Matsu in front of her peers once and for all by having her gang raped by a group of guards in monks robes and stocking masks. This brutal act is perpetrated by the guards with all of the nightmarishly caricatured grotesquerie that we’ve come to count on from the Pinky Violence genre’s depictions of male rapacity, and accomplished with Matsu, glaring molten daggers all the while, still spread-eagled upon the makeshift cross, proving that Norifumi Suzuki was not the only Japanese exploitation director who delighted in flailing away at Christian iconography.
Sadly, this defilement seems to achieve its intended purpose, and, with the exception of a sensitive young inmate named Rose, Matsu is promptly turned upon by her deliriously stir-crazy fellow convicts. On the meatwagon ride back to the prison, she is beaten mercilessly by a gang lead by Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi), a vicious older inmate with a face frozen in the stylized grimace of a Kabuki demon. With this beating, however, Oba has unwittingly aided Matsu in effecting the gang’s escape, for when the guards, believing her dead, come to check on her condition, Matsu manages to overpower and strangle one of them with her chains. After taking out the remaining guard, Matsu, Oba, Rose and four other prisoners escape into the surrounding wilderness. When the warden and his lieutenants later arrive upon the scene, they find the van trashed and both guards dead — one of them, a participant in Matsu’s rape at the quarry, gorily castrated with a tree stump (one of those sights that is all the more horrible for how it sets you to imagining just how on Earth the act was accomplished).
A couple weeks back I reviewed Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film The Godless Girl, an early example of the youth-in-prison genre that took a different, but equally allegorical, approach to its depiction of prison life vs. life on the “outside” as Jailhouse 41. In that film, the young protagonists make a break for it and are able to escape momentarily into the countryside beyond the prison’s walls. This is presented as a brief, idyllic episode, with the lush natural surroundings representing an Eden-like paradise that stands in stark contrast to the Hell on Earth represented by the prison. In Jailhouse there is no such contrast, as the women, once “free”, find the outside world to be every bit as harsh and filled with cruelty as their former confines. To underscore this, the landscape they travel through after their escape is shown as a blasted, volcanic wasteland, and their first shelter a desolate ghost town half buried in black ash. The message is clearly that, being that these are women whose lives and actions have placed them outside the narrow roles defined for them by society, theirs is a world that has no place for them, and offers no true freedom.
Of course, under these circumstances the women prove to be just as much of a threat to each other as anything else in their environment, as their time in prison seems to have left most of them too addled to take any kind of effective or concerted action. It is Matsu alone who maintains a composed — albeit hyper-vigilant — facade, and the volatility and caterwauling that surrounds her serves even more to underscore her unnatural stillness. This eerie calm — and the way that Matsu watches Oba as if in deep recognition of something Oba herself seems desperate to avoid understanding — leads Oba to see Matsu as a threat, and to tirelessly seek to engage her in a power struggle that Matsu invariably wins by virtue of abstaining from it. Despite this adversarial relationship, the two are repeatedly framed as being inextricably linked, and it is predictably Oba’s resistance to seeing her and Matsu’s fates as being bound together that leads to her end.
It is hard to single out one moment in Jailhouse 41 as being the film’s most haunting, because there are many such moments. From the outset of the women’s dash to freedom through this nightmarish terrain, Ito creates an atmosphere that makes even those moments that, on paper, read like simple convicts-on-the-run boilerplate fraught with a creeping sense of horror and unease. But the moment that takes the most decisive turn toward the supernatural occurs during the women’s brief hideaway in the ash-blasted ghost town. The night brings a violent storm, during which the women are drawn to a small hut whose walls suddenly collapse to reveal a mad-eyed old woman, cowering in a blanket with a knife tightly gripped in both hands. Later, as the women gather around a fire, the old woman, still clutching the knife, sings an eerie song, lamenting — in an echo of the Scorpion series’ theme song, sung over the credits of each film by Kaji herself — that “women commit crimes because of men”. Over a series of surreal tableaus staged in the formal, stylized manner of Kabuki theater, she goes on to sing of each woman’s crimes, and we learn that Oba, in a fit of rage against a philandering husband, murdered her own children, one of them an unborn whom she killed by stabbing herself in the womb.
Later, when the warden and his men are closing in on them, the prisoners escape with the old woman into a forest of maple trees that Ito has bathed in a disconcertingly artificial looking autumnal glow. The old woman collapses and, before dying, relinquishes the knife to Matsu while mumbling something about a curse. A ghostly wind whips through the trees and partially buries the body of the woman in fallen leaves, after which it vanishes into thin air. We then see Matsu, now holding the knife, as her hair whips wildly in the wind, a sudden unearthly glow rising upon her face. For anyone who might have stumbled upon Jailhouse 41 with the expectation of seeing a run-of-the-mill women’s prison picture, this has to be the movie’s most resounding WTF moment.
The women’s further adventures on the lamb yield no less amount of strangeness or misfortune. Once they have taken shelter on the outskirts of a small village, it’s demonstrated how straying from the group leads to tragic consequences. One women is lured by the warden, using her small child and elderly parents as bait, and coerced into betraying the others, which leads to a bloody confrontation that leaves two guards and one of the women dead. Later, young Rose wanders off and encounters a group of drunken salarymen on holiday, one of whom has just been regaling his companions with tales of raping Chinese civilians during the war. The world that Jailhouse 41 has sketched for us decrees only one possible outcome for this meeting, and so Rose is brutally raped and murdered, her body tossed like a rag doll from a cliff into the rapids of a nearby river. In just one of many of the film’s instances of surreal visual poetry, the waterfall runs deep crimson as a result, and the women, seeing this, intuit exactly what has happened. Matsu and the others trail the men to the tour bus from which they came and hijack it, taking all of the passengers onboard hostage.
During the siege that follows, the escapees terrorize their captives in a vindictive frenzy, while Matsu, still clutching the old woman’s knife, watches in her usual impenetrable silence from the front of the bus. She entertains a hallucination of the bus suddenly converting into a minimalistically-rendered courtroom with the passengers as a hectoring jury and the women kneeling in chains before them. This morphs into an even stranger fantasy scenario in which the women are each shown being trapped in fishing nets and prodded at by a jeering crowd of villagers, until Matsu manages to cut through the net with the old woman’s blade and stand triumphantly before her stunned persecutors. You think for a moment that Matsu might intervene on behalf of those hostages who appear to be innocent, but these visions seem to advise her otherwise.
Jailhouse 41 ends similarly to the first Scorpion film, with Matsu, the sole survivor out of the original gang of seven, back on the streets after having successfully avoided capture by a variety of single-mindedly ruthless means. Now clad in the same black pimping ensemble she wore at the end of Female Prisoner #701, she is now intent on enacting the vengeance that she has been thirsting for since the outset. Unlike the first time, however, her target is the warden, and she dispatches him in much the same protracted manner she did her betraying boyfriend the first time around, stalking him relentlessly through the streets and slashing him to ribbons with the blade bestowed upon her by the old woman. Once this is accomplished, we see Matsu reflected in the Warden’s glass eye, laughing hysterically — after which she is seen reunited with her fellow escapees, all back in their prison uniforms and running through the streets of the apparently deserted city, handing the knife one off to the other as they go.
As jarring as it is to see a smile on Meiko Kaji’s face after all that has gone before, this fanciful coda was the only such sequences in Jailhouse 41 that fell a little flat for me. For one thing, that Scorpion’s killing of the warden would appear to so effectively lift her burden seems to contradict the tone of the entire film, as it would more likely be a hollow victory, and leave no fewer insurmountable battles in its wake. Furthermore, the image of the women passing the knife between them, while fashionably militant, represents an offering up of a somewhat glib and depressingly limited concept of girl power. Of a piece, it seems like a pat, conciliatory gesture tacked onto the end of a film that has to this point been uncompromising in its vision. Of course, that vision may be unrelentingly bleak, but there is enough redemption to be found in the beauty and inspired ingenuity of its unveiling to render any tacked-on upbeat ending unnecessary. After all, one of the things that carved out a special place for this film in my heart is how it manages to be so oppressively nihilistic in its content while being so transcendent in its presentation.
So what is Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, you might ask. Is it a women-in-prison film? A horror film? An exploitation film? An art film? The answer — as it is when anyone poses those kind of rhetorical questions in the context of a film review — is that it’s all of those in fairly equal measure. It is also a film that is filled with more ideas than its somewhat loosely structured screenplay at times seems capable of holding, and as a result it can come across to some as little more than a series of dazzling but only tangentially connected set pieces. This is an impression that will, I feel, be allayed by repeat viewings. Because — other than those that I singled out above — each of those set pieces ultimately reveals itself to be true to the film’s emotional and moral core. As I said, this film is like a nightmare, and, in taking the form of a dream, it gains cohesion from the beating heart of emotional truth that hides within it, rather than from anything approaching a tidy narrative structure. Also like a nightmare, it has a way of sticking with you long after it has come and gone.
While Jailhouse 41‘s final sequence feels like it wants to be the end of the story, the truth, as most of you know, is that that was far from the case. Shunya Ito had one more Scorpion film in him — and while it’s arguable that, with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, the director topped Jailhouse 41, it is certain that he contributed yet another bold addition to the series.
Release Year: 1972 | Country: Japan | Starring: Meiko Kaji, Fumio Watanabe, Kayoko Shiraishi, Hiroko Isayama, Yukie Kagawa | Writers: Hiro Matsuda, Tooru Shinohara | Director: Shunya Ito | Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi | Also known as: Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Scorpion: Female Prisoner Cage #41, Joshuu Sasori: Dai-41 Zakkyo-bo
In 1975, exploitation film master Roger Corman produced one of his very best films. Combining a wicked sense of campy humor, a healthy dose of violence, and an angry satirical edge, Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, was the best things to bear Corman’s name (as producer) since Corman himself was directing cool horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories for AIP. Always keen to make a buck, Corman immediately set about creating another vehicle-based futuristic fling, albeit one with a lot less of a budget — even for a Corman flick — and a much less talented writer and director. Corman would do his best to make people think it was related in some way to Death Race 2000 by calling the new film Deathsport and casting David Carradine in the lead. But the similarities end there, and while Death Race 2000 is a genuinely good, enjoyable, and even smart film, Deathsport is an incompetent piece of junk with almost nothing to offer humanity. Predictably, I do not own Death Race 2000 and have only seen it once. I do, however, own Deathsport in two different formats now and have watched it at least half a dozen times.
We find ourselves in “the future,” something like a thousand years from now, after the wars have turned the world into a vast tract of scrubland and desert. The remnants of the human race live in fortress style city-states and are called statesmen, leaving the majority of the blighted world to be the domain of mutant cannibals and a race of mystic wanderers known as range guides. Machines are rare, used only by the “statesmen” — people who live in the cities. So, wait. Didn’t you just tell us that pretty much everyone lives in the city and is a statesman? Now I haven’t been good at math or logic since sixth grade, but I’m pretty sure that if almost everyone is a statesmen, and only statesmen use machines, then almost everyone uses machines. So I don’t see what’s so special about it.
The mad leader of Helix City, Lord Zirpola (David McClean), wants to attack a neighboring city for no real reason we can understand other than he is mad and evil. To accomplish this act of war, he has invented the future’s ultimate weapon: a motorcycle with some aluminum attached to the front end, and two lasers on the side that are of the same power as lasers people carry and fire by hand, only the lasers on the so-called “death machines” are more awesome because they are a hell of a lot harder to aim. Zirpola wants to prove to his people that the death machines are super bad-ass, so he decides to capture some range guides and showcase their obliteration by death machine in the city’s gladiatorial “deathsport.” This will convince the population that an unjustified war with the other city will be fun and easy, so long as everyone is riding a death machine.
The future as projected by the cheap sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s is jam packed with incredibly lame ultimate weapons. The death machines are pretty high up on the list, though they will pale in comparison to some of the other ultimate weapons we’ll be seeing later in this series of reviews. The death machines may be stupid and unwieldy as weapons, but at least they are still motorcycles. At the very least, you can ride them around and have fun up until Barry Bostwick shows up on his own futuristic motorcycle with crap attached to the front end and brags about how his can also fly. But still, when we first see the death machines in action, a couple female range guides, one of whom is the late Gator Bait herself, Claudia Jennings, take them out with no real problem. Range guide Kaz Oshay (Carradine) will also take a few out all by himself — and range guides are armed with nothing but clear plastic swords that whistle when you swing them around. I’m pretty sure I had a toy that did the same thing. That’s all it takes to make a death machine explode? At no point, though, does the army of Helix City think that the death machines are a stupid idea, let alone an especially stupid idea in a world with lots of tall, steep rock formations people have no problem scurrying up to escape the death machines. Oh if only Lord Zirpola has listened to Barry Bostwick and put rocket wings on the motorcycles!
Eventually Carradine’s Kaz and Jenning’s Deneer are captured, though that has less to do with the death machines than it does sheer force of numbers. They come face to face with the leader of Helix City’s army, the black-clad Richard Lynch. Yes, his character has a name (Ankar Moor), but anyone who knows Richard Lynch knows that he plays the same evil guy character in every movie, so we might as well just call him Richard Lynch. I guess the same could be said of David Carradine as well. Lynch has the sinister air of a young Rutger Hauer crossbred with the condescending sneer of William Atherton and the hair of Gladiator Malibu from the 80s version of American Gladiators. Can even David Carradine stand up to such a foe?
It turns out that not only is Richard Lynch evil, but he’s also a former range guide who betrayed The Code and killed the most powerful of all range guides, who just happens to be Kaz Oshay’s mom. Deneer and Kaz don’t take too kindly to being caged like animals. While Kaz kicks the wall a lot and yells “I am my only master,” Deneer is made to wander around nude in a room full of neon tubes that shake around, howl, and electrocute people. Don’t ask me, man. I didn’t write it. Eventually, the two guides are forced to compete against the death machines in deathsport, an event that takes up about ten minutes of the film’s running time and has almost no real bearing on the plot, but is never the less the source of the title. Earlier in the film, Zirpola was angry that Ankor Moor lost a couple death machines whilst pursuing Claudia Jennings, yet here he seems unphased by the fact that the two captive rangers take out like a dozen of the infernal contraptions. Maybe if he’d put trained soldiers on the machines instead of chumps he just picked out of jail, his little dog and pony show would have gone better. The two rangers escape along with a couple hangers on, thus ending the deathsport portion of Deathsport. All that’s left now is for the bad guys to chase the good guys across the barren wasteland until we get a final showdown between Kaz Oshay and Ankor Moor. All in all, Zirpola’s death machine coming out party went over about as well as one of those corporate seminars where the presenter has all his stuff stored online and then can’t get an internet connection (possibly because the internet has become sentient and is too preoccupied with cataloging its vast store of Naruto slashfic).
To enumerate the various points at which the plot doesn’t make any sense would be to wandering into a Minotaur’s labyrinth from which there is no real hope of emerging alive. The death machines having already been covered as being idiotic, we could turn to how much is made of Carradine’s ability to sense the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to him predicting the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to a scene of people going “The dangerous weather is coming,” which then leads immediately to a scene of people coming out of a cave and going, “Whew, I sure am glad that dangerous weather is over.” Cannibal mutants kidnap a little girl, and one assumes that the reason cannibal mutants would kidnap a little girl is to eat her. But weeks later, when Kaz and Deneer finally show up to rescue her, she’s still there. I guess they wanted to soften up the meat. The cannibal mutants had her in a little cage, after all, so I reckon that the world may have collapsed but our love of veal has not. There are also multiple scenes were someone who is supposed to get killed stands right in front of a death machine, but instead of shooting the person with the lasers, the guy on the death machine just does a little wheelie or jumps over a convenient dirt pile next to the person. And then usually the death machine explodes. You may not have realized that hitting a motorcycle with a clear plastic sword would make it explode, but that’s why you’re not a range guide.
And then there’s the matter of Lord Zirpola’s neon tube torture forest. Seriously, just what the hell? I mean, I can understand having a chamber where people dance naked for you. And I can understand that in the future, poledancer poles will need to be more futuristic, and thus making them transparent tubes filled with flashing neon lights is inevitable. But what kind of torture is it to then make them shake all around and howl? That’s not torture; that’s just ugly windchimes, and you can get those all over the place down South. Still, at least the movie does right by us and has not one but two gratuitous scenes of nude dancing in the neon tube forest, one of which goes on for a while and features a woman (Valerie Rae Clark, star of…ummm…Breast Orgy and Breast Orgy 2) we’ve never seen before and will never see again but, for some reason, apart from dancing nude, also gets to kill Lord Zirpola by…umm…offering her hand to him while he’s busy making the tubes shock her or whatever it is they do. Zirpola also has a torture tunnel where he straps you down and flashes lights at you, causing you to scream. This requires Claudia Jennings to be nude for the torture to work. Luckily, it does not require the same of David Carradine.
So let me address this right here. David Carradine in his youth — not really a bad looking guy. In pretty good shape. But the loincloth simply does not become him. It becomes very few men, especially when they are shot from such awkward angles, like leaping spread legged through the air or rolling around on their back with their legs stuck up. It’s just not a good angle. That’s why you don’t see male strippers constantly jumping all spread eagle off the backs of chairs and stuff. They know that it looks goofy. They’ll straddle a chair, but they’ll never jump awkwardly off it. And when it comes to rolling around on their backs in a crouching position, they’re going to skip that and fill the time with a little trick I like to call “around the world.” So while we get to see plenty of David Carradine flesh, most of it is unwelcome because it just ends up looking so goofy. Still, I suppose we should be happy he wasn’t forced to do full frontal nude dancing in the forest of shaking, howling neon tubes.
Probably my favorite part of the movie is when Kaz Oshay leads Ankor and his minions on a motorcycle race through a fuel depot which has no reason to exist out in the middle of the desert. The depot is full of gasoline barrels stacked apparently at random throughout the facility, sometimes in front of ramps so that people can jump their motorcycles through flames once the barrels have inevitably exploded. In classic Corman fashion, scenes of jumping motorcycles are recycled a few times to increase the number of times we get to watch a guy jump a motorcycle over some candy cane colored barrels. This fuel depot was apparently built by the same people who were doing the construction on the building where Jackie Chan has his final fight scene in Mr. Nice Guy. If you don’t recall or never saw the film, that building features a framed-up but not entirely drywalled floor that was apparently comprised of nothing but hundreds of 5×5 rooms with doors in every wall. It was fun for a fight scene, but really, what the hell were they building?
Watching Deathsport is mind-bending enough on its own right, but where the film really shines is in the backstage drama. The movie was written by Nicholas Niciphor. Though he had no experience as a director, Niciphor was also hired to direct — presumably because the vision for Deathsport was so grand and amazing that only the film’s writer could hope to fully realize it, or something. Now, who you believe about what has a lot to do with sorting out what happened, but I’m going mostly with David Carradine’s version. According to Carradine, Niciphor was not only inexperienced, he was also unstable. He was so clueless about directing that he didn’t even now what it meant to set up a camera. He was prone to freak out, especially at Claudia Jennings or whenever anyone had trouble maneuvering the awkward death machines. According to Niciphor, this was often because the cast was drunk, stoned, and unruly, especially Jennings. I don’t really doubt it. Carradine himself admits that there was a bit of partying going on. Former Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings was well known as a wild child anyway. But then, you’re making Deathsport. What the hell is there to be so serious about? Niciphor, however, was deadly serious about his film, and if the cast was clowning around, it only served to push him further over the edge. If things didn’t go right on the first take, he would throw a fit and throw out the entire scene and brood about it.
Things came to a head when he tore into Jennings over her inability to effectively handle the clunky death machines. Everyone was having problems with the front-heavy contraptions, but Jennings in particular irked him. It got so heated that Niciphor allegedly struck Jennings, though David Carradine says he can’t verify this since he was down at the other end of a gully waiting to do a take. Jennings was ready to quit the movie, and it was only after speaking with the producer who then spoke to Roger Corman that she was convinced to stay on. Niciphor was eventually phased out, spending most of his time skulking in the background, and Alan Arkush was brought in to complete the film — but not before Niciphor got his nose broken by David Carradine when he walked too close to a fight scene rehearsal in progress. Niciphor claims it might not have been an accident. But that’s nothing, since apparently the temperamental (or perhaps just mental) writer-director also berated Jennings and Carradine to the point where David actually just hauled off and kicked the guy’s ass.
Niciphor refutes many of the claims without actually refuting them. According to his side of things, the altercation between he and Claudia Jennings happened because Jennings was coked out while trying to operate the death machine, and that’s why she was having a hard time. I don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility. Jenning’s cocaine addiction was well known. Niciphor further claims that Carradine was smoking hashish the whole time. Again, I don’t think this is outside the realm of believability — especially when you witness how stoned Carradine looks for most of the movie. But none of this really counters any of what Carradine said, either. The entire thing sounds like a snobs versus slobs teen sex comedy, with Carradine and Jennings cast and the lovable freewheelin’ slobs and Niciphor as the stuffy dean who hates fun. Assuming that the truth is to be found in some mix of all sides of the story, the final verdict is that the the making of Deathsport would probably be a much better film than Deathsport itself.
Things like that are why I like movies like this so much — apart from the fact that this movie is just plain weird. It’s handled with such seriousness, with such earnestness. You can feel that poor Nicholas Niciphor really believed in every line, really wanted this film to have meaning and depth. Does a film this lousy really deserve that much behind the scenes drama? I would love for the DVD to have had some commentary attached to it, either by Carradine or Niciphor — or hell, put ‘em both in the room and let them duke it out. This was the first and last time poor Nick directed a film, though he did go on to work as a writer for a few more films, including Alejandro Jodorowski’s Tusk. Beyond that, he’s been relegated to the realm of writing irate letters to Psychotronic magazine, complaining about David Carradine’s doobie habits in 1978.
Carradine, of course, needs no real introduction here. A dancer who sprung into the American consciousness courtesy of the show Kung-Fu, Carradine went on to become one of the mainstays of exploitation cinema, especially when it was produced by Roger Corman. Carradine could be quite good in a role, and when he was bad, he mostly seemed harmlessly sleepy and stoned. That’s how he plays it here, meandering through Niciphor’s ponderous faux-mystic dialogue with the laid back style of a dude who was eating a lot of pot brownies. His fight scenes are awkward, but that’s more the fault of the movie itself. What can you do when you’re forced to swing around a huge plastic sword? His nemesis in Richard Lynch is…well, Lynch is actually understated compared to some of his other performances, but it’s still the exact same performance you expect and always want from Lynch. I can’t say much more than that.
Claudia Jennings is another well known, albeit far more tragic, figure in B-Movie history. Jennings became one of the most recognizable faces in exploitation cinema when she appeared in the film Gator Bait, which is well known not so much because the movie is worth being well known, but more because every single video store in the universe seemed to have a sun bleached copy of the VHS tape sitting on the shelf. Jennings isn’t a great actress, and she has a sort of sleepy eyed beauty that makes her seem like she was stoned the entire time — which she apparently was. Between her and Carradine, the munchies-related catering bill must have eaten up half the film’s budget. She had her moments of glory in film, though. Unholy Rollers, for example, and Moonshine County Express. Deathsport really isn’t one of those moments, though she does get to wander naked through that neon tube room. This film comes at the end of her career, when she was heavy into drug and alcohol abuse and had a tumultuous relationship with some real estate guy (though rumors have her connected to Deathsport co-star Jesse Vint, and someone — Niciphor I think — also claimed she was attached to David Carradine, a claim that Carradine laughs off as preposterous). She cleaned up her act shortly thereafter, but amid a breakup with the realtor, fell asleep at the wheel of her car and was killed in the ensuing wreck.
But even if Jennings and Carradine were whooping it up, smoking pot, drinking whiskey, and arranging huge Deathsport orgies, nothing in their performance can come close to being as awkward or awful as that of young Will Walker, who plays one of the guys who breaks out of the deathsport competition with the range guides. This is one of those performances that is so weird and horrible that it deserves far more attention than it receives. He looks kind of like Miles O’Keefe in Sword of the Valiant, with the blond page boy haircut and the same dazed thousand yard stare. But Miles is a much better actor than Walker, believe it or not. Walker’s character of Marcus spends most of his time yelling “Kaz! Help me!” in a bland monotone. If the film has an humor at all, it’s to be found in Kaz’s flashes of annoyance at having to carry this load around on his awesome adventure with Claudia Jennings. She was totally willing to go all the way, but then Marcus kept showing up and ruining the mood.
Post apocalyptic cinema from the 1970s was often slow and ponderous, not to mention incredibly self-important and pretentious. Sometimes the results are pretty great, sometimes they were ridiculous, and often they were just dull. Deathsport is sort of a missing link between the post apocalyptic films of the 70s and those that would come in the wake of Mad Max and, more importantly, its sequel, The Road Warrior. Those films featured much less cornball philosophizing and much more high octane action. Or at least attempts at high octane action. Deathsport has plenty of the corny mysticism and dime store attempts at Zen koans that one expects from 1970s sci-fi, but it also has lots of exploding motorcycles and…well…it has lots of exploding motorcycles. And it is one of the first post-apocalypse films to save itself some cash by predicting that, in the future, the world would mostly look like scrubland dotted with matte paintings of distant cities. It’s pretty fair to draw the line from this movie directly to Mad Max, Road Warrior, and from there you quickly find yourself in the domain of Warriors of the Lost World and Warlords of the 21st Century — movies that, many years after Deathsport, manage to be just as cheap and goofy as it was, but not nearly as much fun. I mean, those later movies have practically no David Carradine crotch at all!
Deathsport presents us with a loopy sort of myticism not unlike The Force as presented in Star Wars and before George Lucas turned it into some sort of genetic disease, but more accurately, it reflects the same sort of New Age filtered half understanding of Buddhism and spirituality that you find in a movie like Circle of Iron (also featuring David Carradine in a loin cloth) or in pretty much any pow wow held by some white dude claiming to be enlightened. Our range guides speak in monotone a lot about consciousness and spiritual union, and we know they are wise because they do not use contractions, but it all sounds pretty much like what a high schooler might come up with. Circle of Iron covers much of the same ground but in a more effective way and with a greater grounding in actual Zen philosophy rather than Zen as filtered through some hippie who read a couple pamphlets and then set himself up with an American ashram. But we’ll come to that movie in good time, and if nothing else, it’s probably safe to say that as many hashish brownies went into its making as went into the making of Deathsport. Star Wars must also have had some effect on this film, though, because the foley artist thought enough of it to take the TIE fighter sound effect and use them whenever David Carradine drives his motorcycle through a tunnel.
Deathsport is a pretty clumsy film, full of bad writing, plot points that make no sense, ominous talk about things that end up never happening, and a titular event that ends up being, at best, a footnote in the film’s action. The acting is lazy, the writing is ridiculous, and the props are laughable. And it’s all worth seeing, just for the sheer spectacle of it. Ill advised motorcycles as ultimate weapons movies wouldn’t have it this good again until Megaforce rolled off the assembly line. The fact that a movie this bad generated so much behind the scenes drama fills me with a sick sense of giddiness, as does the thought that Carradine and Jennings were toking up while an uptight German guy yelled at them to take his film more seriously. I don’t even know if Nick was German. I just like imagining him that way, possibly dressed in the monocle and jodhpurs get up all good directors wear. It may not be a shining example of 70s scifi, or even a shining example of a middling Roger Corman production, but it is pretty entertaining. Plus, neon disco windchime nude dancing, and so many David Carradine buffalo shots per minute that to merely gaze upon them is enough to drive sane men mad.
Perhaps that’s what happened to poor old Lord Zirpola.
Release Year: 1978 | Country: United States | Starring: David Carradine, Claudia Jennings, Richard Lynch, William Smithers, Will Walker, David McLean, Jesse Vint | Writer: Nicholas Niciphor, Donald Stewart | Director: Nicholas Niciphor | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Andy Stein | Producer: Roger Corman
At various points in various reviews, we’ve discussed the painful demise of Hammer Studios and the Hammer horror film, so rather than rehash it here yet again, I direct you to Taste the Blood of Dracula (the review, I don’t mean I’m actually directing you to taste Dracula’s blood, should you have any lying about), Dracula AD 1972, and Satanic Rites of Dracula, all of which ramble on and probably repeat the same information about Hammer’s inability to sustain itself into the 1970s and in the face of a brutal collapse of the British film industry. I also point out on several occasions that, despite the fact that Hammer was a rudderless ship adrift in a tumultuous sea, many — in fact, most — of the horror films they made in the 1970s were of exceptional quality. It’s a shame that the worst horror film they ever made, To the Devil…A Daughter was their last, and thus the swan song for a studio that deserved much better.
Dracula films had been, along with Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein films, the studio’s bread and butter, but Hammer experimented from time to time with non-Dracula vampire films, with varying degrees of success. The first of these, oddly, was the first sequel to the studios smash hit Horror of Dracula. The Brides of Dracula finds Peter Cushing reprising his role as Dr. Van Helsing, but other than a few mentions here and there, Dracula is out of action for this film, and the action instead focuses on a second bloodsucker. Hammer had it in their head that the film series would be about Van Helsing, cruising around Victorian Europe fighting the various vampires Dracula had spawned, or something to that effect — sort of like the Sons of Hercules, only instead of huge bodybuilders in tunics, it was a skinny British guy in a greatcoat. Hammer’s reasoning may have seemed sound at first. Peter Cushing was their biggest star, after all, and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was, at the time, just promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee.
But Hammer sorely underestimated the appeal of promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee and, more importantly, the desire to actually see Dracula in any film that used the name Dracula in the title. So while Brides of Dracula is a spectacularly entertaining film, wasn’t what audiences or distributors were looking for. When Hammer dipped its tow back into the Dracula waters with Dracula, Prince of Darkness, they made sure that Dracula — played once again by now venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — was in the movie. But Hammer still liked to toy with the occasional non-Dracula vampire film, usually with great artistic success. 1963’s Kiss of the Vampire is wonderful, for example. But after the release of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Hammer went into “all Dracula, all the time” mode, and any script for a vampire film had to be a Dracula film, because otherwise, the British public would miss out on another round of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula movies.
Time passed, and many Dracula films came and went. So many, in fact, that eventually Hammer had no idea what to do with the guy. He’d been killed once and for all more times than The Ramones had farewell tours. So in 1970, as the studio was entering its downward spiral years, someone decided to revive the old idea of a Dracula movie without Dracula. This time, however, distributors nipped the temptation in the bud, and Taste the Blood of Dracula has the iconic count crowbarred into the script so he could stand in the shadows and provide a running countdown of the people who had been killed. It’s quite a good movie, but Dracula himself is more superfluous than usual, and he was pretty superfluous in most of the films. The count would limp on through a couple more features, including Scars of Dracula (which I like more and more as the years go on) and Dracula AD 1972, before The Satanic Rites of Dracula put the final stake through the heart of the franchise, completing Dracula’s transformation from a raging force of nature into a supernatural demon and, ultimately, into a cartoonish spy movie style mad villain. All he lacked was a TV transmitter that allowed him to broadcast taunts directly onto an oval-shaped monitor on the wall of Van Helsing’s study.
At the same time the Dracula films were making their grim march to the grave, however, Hammer did succeed in bringing one corpse back from the dead: the idea of a vampire film unrelated to Dracula. This came in the form of The Vampire Lovers, but more specifically, it came in the form of star Ingrid Pitt and the newfound permission to feature nudity in their films. The Vampire Lovers was enough of a success that it spawned two loosely connected sequels — the weak Lust for a Vampire and the exceptional Twins of Evil. It also opened the doors for a flailing Hammer to try and find some way of mixing the old with the new, of sticking to the tried and true vampire film that had supported them for so many years, but without relying on Dracula. Modern twists on old formulas, if you will. This lead to two of Hammer’s very best vampire movies, and had the studio had more time, more money, and more faith in its product, they might have had themselves two new franchises capable of carrying the studio through hard times when madcap On the Bus comedies could not. One of these films was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. The other was Vampire Circus.
Both films felt very different from any of Hammer’s previous vampire films. Vampire Circus, in particular, is probably one of the weirdest feeling films Hammer ever produced. It’s not psychedelic, mind you, but it’s like one of those psychedelic themed novelty records made by some old guy still trying to be hip with the kids. Or like Psychedelic Shack by The Temptations. That’s a good album, but no one was really going to buy The Temptations as a trippy psychedelic band, especially in 1970. Similarly, Vampire Circus is a really good film, possibly even a great film, but it never quite succeeds in feeling “modern,” not when it’s up against something like Blacula, for example, or the glut of Satanism movies that were coming out around the same time. Instead, Vampire Circus becomes its own really weird creature, rather unique and unlike any of the vampire films that came before it. In fact, though you could draw a connection to the old Universal House Of… movies because of the inclusion of a traveling gypsy circus, Vampire Circus has more in common with a film like Freaks or The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao than it has with Hammer’s previous vampire films.
The best and worst the film has to offer is right at the front, before the credits even role. A simple yet eerie and effective intro finds a local village man and his daughter in the woods. The little girl is tempted away from her father by a woman we know just isn’t quite right. The father, upon noticing, shrieks with terror and clamors to rescue his daughter, but it’s too late, and she disappears with the woman inside a creepy looking castle. The distraught man then rounds up a posse to carry torches and shake pitchforks at the inhabitant of the castle, a mysterious and threatening character named Count Mitterhouse (TV bit actor Robert Tayman). So far, so good. Everything has been really creepy in the same way the picture on the cover of that first Black Sabbath album is creepy. Yeah, it’s just a grainy photo of a weird looking chick in black robes standing in a clump of dead trees with a spooky house behind her, but it’s always scared me a little, even today. That woman would have definitely been in league with Mitterhaus, and if she lead you back to her lair with the beckoning of a slender (apparently green) finger, you’d be in for about two minutes of passionate spooky lovemaking and nudity, and then she’d rip your throat open or somehow manage to have gotten you lashed onto a series of hooks that pull off your skin or something like that.
However, what awaits within the walls of the castle is a bit different, and this is where the worst comes into play. Mitterhaus is absolutely ludicrous. He’s like a spoof vampire played by a drag queen in a disco musical written, directed, starring, and only seen by the world’s most flamboyant drag queens, and then at the end they all agree that the play was good but Mitterhaus was a little too campy for them. When you’re too campy for a theater full of drag queens, you are definitely too campy for a Hammer film, especially one that is otherwise so weird and serious. Not that Mitterhaus doesn’t have his strong suits as a character. For one, he lives in a cool castle populated by a couple sexy naked orgy women. He has lovely taste is sashes. And the fact that he’s kidnapped and lured a little girl into his sleazy lair gives the character an air of scummy, almost pedophiliac menace that really makes him a villain. You could always root for Dracula, even when he was at his worst and whipping Dr. Who with steel switches, but Mitterhaus just gives off a creepy uncle vibe. All this in and of itself is good for the movie, but Tayman’s performance is just ridiculous. It’s all mincing and eye rolling and silly face making. Even when he’s slaughtering his would-be attackers, he’s less frightening than he is…well, like a flailing dancer who got lost on his way to a John Waters film. Everything about the character is well written, but it’s like having it all and then delivering it in an Easter bunny outfit.
Still, when the worst thing about your film is that your vampire is a little too campy, that’s not bad. And when I say it’s the worst thing about the film, one has to measure that on a relative scale. Because silly though he may be, it’s hardly enough to spoil the film. In a way, I guess it makes Mitterhaus even more formidable. It’s like having your ass kicked by Mick Jagger’s character from Performance. You keep telling yourself, “This can’t be happening! He’s much to fey to kick my ass!” But that thought doesn’t stop him from doing it.
Eventually, Mitterhaus gets a stake through the heart and makes a face like a disgusted Southern bell who just won second place in the county fair beauty contest. With his dying breath, or whatever it is vampires have, he curses the town, swearing that the children of his killers will die to give him life again. Once again, it’s all really well done, easily one of the best vampire film intros ever, but it’s hard to take seriously with Mitterhaus camping it up to a degree that even Shatner and Vincent Price would tell him to take it down a notch. But with him in the grave the film can settle down and find its groove.
And that groove, as I’ve already said, is a mighty quirky one. The story picks up some years later. The town has been quarantined due to an outbreak of plague, and anyone caught attempting to leave the boundaries of the town is shot by unseen soldiers, or whoever is in charge of shooting people who try to escape from plague infected European towns. But other than tat, live seems OK. The elders, most of whom were in on killing Mitterhaus, while away their days figuring out plans to get the quarantine lifted. The village doctor doesn’t believe in vampires or that old queen Mitterhaus’ curse. Young people are in love. The inn, believe it or not, is not owned by Michael Ripper. In fact, there are very few familiar faces in this town, and no Hammer heavies in front of or behind the camera.
To this blighted town, though no one can explain how they get there, comes the Circus of Night, a small time, fairly creepy affair that employs, among others, a scary dwarf harlequin, an accordion playing mute strongman who will eventually grow up to be Darth Vader (David Prowse),a gypsy matron, a naked bald chick who does sexy tiger dances, a couple of potentially incestuous acrobatic twins who can turn into bats, and a hot young guy who can turn into a panther. Desperate for anything to take their minds off being a quarantined plague town cursed by a campy yet ass-kicking vampire, overlook the peculiarities of the circus and settle down for some good old fashioned family fun.
And man, what a circus it is. I attended a few circuses when I was young, and I remember a guy named Gunter who put his head in a lion’s mouth, and then I think a clown shot another clown with a seltzer bottle and they fired someone out of a cannon. That was cool and all, but I kind of wish I went to the circus where a tiger ran out and turned into a naked, chick painted with tiger strips, who then proceeded to do sexy dancing while being “tamed” by a guy before they finally just end up writhing around on the ground and practically doing…you know…it. And people seem to be amused by but not terribly upset by the fact that the people in this circus seem to be able to shapeshift into bats and panthers, or that a dwarf keeps grinning and running around making surprised “O mouth” faces. I guess they chalk it up to gypsy magic. Things aren’t as much fun once members of the circus break out the fangs and start preying on the children, usually after corrupting them in some sexual fashion. Each kill brings Mitterhaus a step closer to resurrection.
Vampire Circus benefits from the fact that Hammer was lost at sea, allowing new(er) directors to take a chance in hopes that something, anything, would stick and keep the studio afloat just a bit longer. That coupled with the relaxing of regulations regarding nudity meant that writer Judson Kinberg, in his first of only two career screen credits, could be much more explicit about the sexuality that has always existed in Hammer’s vampire fare. When first we meet Mitterhaus, he’s cavorting in bed with two naked women. He’s a rakehell and hedonist with a bit of the Marquis De Sade about him, and Vampire Circus gets to show more of that than they ever did in the past. He’s also a child murderer and has questionable taste in chest-exposing frilly shirts. Hammer’s Dracula was a combination of animal rage and desire, driven to do things not because he takes pleasure in them, but because it is his instinct, his thirst.
Mitterhaus, on the other hand, seems to take great pleasure in his lifestyle. He’s less animal, more decadent. Similarly, his minions in the circus use explicit sexuality to ensnare and kill their young victims. Emil the Panther seduces the burgomaster’s daughter and feeds on her during a series of sexual encounters. The incestuous acro-bats similarly seduce young men and women to take part in funky threesome action. It is not just important that they deliver fresh blood to Mitterhaus; they must also thoroughly corrupt their victims. Their master seems to draw as much power from this as he does from the fresh blood they dribble on his moldy corpse. If only he’d known that by the 1970s, all it too to bring Dracula back to life was a random bat flying into his window and dribbling some blood on his face. Heck, by the final Dracula film, you didn’t even need to bring Dracula back to life. He was just there, already in action (as much as “sitting behind a desk” can be action), and Hammer seemed to be saying, “Look, at this point do you even care how Dracula got brought back to life?” By comparison, Mitterhaus has to work pretty hard at it.
Tackling sexual politics has always been tricky for Hammer, and they’ve always walked the “have your cake and eat it too” thin line of cramming their films with naked sex appeal and heaving bosoms while skirting censorship issues by half-assedly grafting on “but in the end, the pure ones prevailed. Hooray!” final scenes. By their own admission, this was usually to keep uppity vicars and morally outraged censors off their backs while still being able show plenty of half naked women. As a libertine, rakehell, and dandy cad about town, I always roll my eyes when movies see no other outcome but tragedy for anyone evil enough to actually enjoy sex and a spot of hedonism. Victorian horror films usually counter that by expressly showing that it’s not the sexuality so much as it is the repression of sexuality that causes things to go sour. But the end result is the same. People who like sex usually die.
But ultimately, what it comes down to is that I am not inclined to worry myself about the sexual politics of Vampire Circus. These movies, like most movies, have to jump through so many hoops to satisfy so many cranky people that eventually, almost all politics, sexual or otherwise, are confused to the point of contradicting themselves, sometimes even in the same scene. I’m much happier to lie back in my reclining throne, slosh about my goblet of wine, and bark, “Send in the naked tiger dance woman!”
On the other hand, I do spend a lot of time thinking about other philosophical question as relates to entertainment. For instance, did every singer for a psychedelic 60s British band have a fling with a vicar’s daughter, and are all vicar’s daughters hot, blonde free spirits yearning to run naked and free through a field of barley? But then, I’m from the United States. I actually don’t even know what a vicar is. What is it, like some sort of a sports car? I did once have a crush on a Methodist minister’s daughter, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “vicar’s daughter” or “son of a preacherman” does.And anyway, it turned out she wasn’t a repressed girl yearning to rebel against her strict upbringing by letting me unbutton her blouse. She wanted to teach me about God, and I wanted to fondle her boobs in the choir balcony during church lock-ins. Needless to say, our relationship was as successful as my entire career as a churchgoer.
Anyway, where was I? I’ve gone and gotten myself all distracted now. Let’s move on to the general air of weirdness that’s instantly generated by setting a film in or around a traveling circus. In a way it’s a cheat, like those movies that film on location on the plains of Africa or the steppes of Mongolia and then expect awards for their sweeping, epic cinematography. The land itself did all the heavy lifting; all you really needed to do was set up the camera and pan around a spell. Similarly, old time traveling circuses are inherently creepy and awkward, just as they are inciting and mysterious. They infuse anything around them with those same characteristics. Vampire Circus definitely benefits from the “old time traveling circus weirdness” vibe that seems ingrained in our very psyches. It still works on me. I’m middle aged and I still dream of going to a parking lot circus and meeting some raven-haired gypsy beauty who will tell my fortune and embroil me in supernatural brushes with death as we fight the dark fate looming on my horizon. Or barring that, I dream of sitting around with carnival strippers and Johnny Eck, drinking whiskey and swapping stories about the rubes.
When I was little, I used to go with my Grandpa Bud to horse shows during the Kentucky State Fair every year. It was a pretty sweet deal for a little kid. You got to set up a campsite in a veritable city of horse stalls, sleep in the stalls (the horses were across the aisle in other stalls), and basically have the run of the fair. And the Kentucky State Fair, at least back then (I haven’t been in ages) was huge. There was a flea market back when cool stuff could be found at flea markets instead of on eBay, with all the flea markets now just selling OxyClean and ShamWows. The flea market took up two buildings the size of stadiums, and you could wander through all the weird junk and 4H dioramas for days. But best of all was that no one gave a rat’s ass about security, so even as young as I was, I was allowed to wander in and out of every building, through every door, every nook and cranny. I crawled through tiny maintenance access tunnels, wandered around in boiler rooms where hissing pipes seemed to go on for miles, and best of all, was never told to shoo off the midway, even in the middle of the night.
I’d sneak out and wander around, doing my best to avoid the teenagers who were doing the same but apparently had some sort of activity the boys and girls would do together. Not sure what it was. I got to watch people setting up and breaking down rides and attractions, pal around with creepy old men running the bumper cars and moon walk, and best off all, got after-midnight rides on the various disappointing spook house type rides which, despite being disappointing, continue to this day to delight me to a disturbing degree. Somehow, I did all this without ever once being molested or murdered by someone’s deformed son they kept locked in the bowels of their haunted house attraction.
At the time, I was high on a number of movies that involved similar settings. I saw Freaks at an early age, and it was right around the time Disney released Something Wicked This Way Comes. he Kentucky State Fair never had any stripper tents or freak show, but it was still pretty awesome running around in the middle of the night, with all those lights still flashing and the occasional hair trigger animatronic gorilla growling at me. Watching Vampire circus is sort of like wandering down a deserted midway int he middle of the night. There’s something undeniably spooky about it, but it’s also got this hallucinogenic allure. Whether born of myth or reality, circuses always have the air of something else going on, just behind the tent flap. Secret things, a whole other world to which you are not privy and only the select few can see. Ground down by daily humdrum, this world of beautiful gypsy fortune tellers and good natured strongmen, of devious managers and shifty mesmerizers, seems a much better alternative. Ignoring, of course, the backbreaking work and touring schedule, and the fact that if you join the traveling spooky circus, you may thing you are going to romance the gypsy girl or the sexy guy who turns into a panther, but mostly, you’re probably just going to be cleaning up chimp shit and taking care of Dracula’s corpse, which is in a poorly made display case.
But that doesn’t matter, does it? Carnivals, traveling circuses, gypsies — these things are awesome, pure and simple. And they infuse Vampire Circus with an atmosphere that is unique among Hammer horror films. In this strange world — almost, but not quite like our own — everyday items take on a sinister second nature. Most Hammer films aren’t scary these days, even f they are still quite good. But a film like Vampire Circus, while not exactly scary, manages still to be very…unsettling, perhaps. This works on a meta level as well. This is a Hammer film. Parts of it are very Hammer-esque. But it’s also not quite the same. The location shooting makes it different, for one, and the cinematography is off-kilter. There are no familiar faces. Certainly no Peter Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, but also no Michael Rippers, not even Ralph Bates. I was hard pressed to pick out any recognizable faces other than Anthony Higgins and Thorley Walters, and no one really gets all excited when, “That new Anthony Higgins film opens this week.” Not that this a cast of newbies, or that the cast lacks talent. Quite the contrary. Many of the faces are familiar from other movies, other television shows (Lalla Ward undoubtedly being the most recognizable thanks to her role as Romana in Doctor Who), but none of them are really familiar as Hammer stalwarts. It’s like walking into work one day and seeing that everyone has been replaced by someone else who does the same job, does it well, and is likable. You get along with them, even enjoy their company, and you certainly respect their work; you just can’t help glancing nervously around from time to time and wondering where the hell Michael Ripper went.
Thing is, I don’t think this movie would have worked as well if there had been familiar faces in it. After all, Hammer was ostensibly trying to break from the past, and nothing would signify that attempt quite as much as keeping the old guard off camera. If I see Peter Cushing, I know I’m in familiar territory, and I relax and enjoy the ride. But with a cast I don’t know, I have no idea what to expect. Who’s going to live, who’s going to die? Beats me. I just have to sit on the edge of the seat and watch the movie. Keeping the big guns off screen also means that B-teamers and background players get a chance to step forward and strut their stuff, proving why so many Hammer films are so good. Even the people who don’t have any lines are good actors. The lack of familiar faces onto which we can latch means that the characters get caught up in the bizarre events surrounding them far more easily. If it was Cushing out there, we’d expect him to say, “My God, man, it can’t be! Mitterhaus is dead!” Then he would competently go about exterminating the vampires and saving us all. But Cushing isn’t there to protect us, and that uncertainty is palpable.
Of the cast that is present, most are forgettably competent, which is kind of how they need to be for the film to succeed. The film continues Hammer’s trend of featuring young protagonists in hopes that would lure kids into the theater. This really started in Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula, and culminated in the groovy hep kids in Dracula AD 1972, though they still needed Peter Cushing to show up, research some books, and make a grim face of determination as he engaged Dracula in their latest final showdown. In Vampire Circus, bot the heroes and the villains skew young. Some adults are on hand, of course, though their primary function is to prove too weak to stand up to these freaky young vampires. Our nominal heroes Dora (Lynne Frederick, who went on to star alongside Peter Sellers in The Prisoner of Zenda) and Anton (John Moulder-Brown, who looks like some of the Pauls from Hammer’s last few Dracula films) don’t make much of an impression, but they are serviceable enough when surrounded by so much oddness.
This anonymity applies to the crew as well. There’s no Anthony Hinds here, no John Gilling or Terence Fisher. Instead we have first-time director Robert Young and first-time (almost only time) writer Judson Kinberg. Bringing in some fresh blood helped Hammer shake the formula up while still allowing it to remain recognizable. Vampire Circus feels much more like a continental horror film, like the dreamy, often illogical horror films of Italy or France where ambiance and imagery is more important than logical procession and and solid plot. This was pretty new territory for Hammer. Hammer horror may have relied on the fantastic, but it often presented it in as scientific and logical a fashion as possible for a horror film. Although Vampire Circus still follows a logical narrative — things still make sense — where as French and Italian horror films would not, it still boasts a very dreamy, supernatural state of being. That said, it also differs significantly from continental horror films in that there is a lot more action — plenty of vampire attacks and wanton point blank assassination of circus animals by drunken villagers. It may be dreamy, but it’s rarely ponderous.
Apparently, Young was given more or less free reign by Michael Carreras to do what he wanted, and Young wanted to make the film unusual. He certainly did that, and even though he ran out of time and had to edit around missing scenes he’d not had time to shoot, the film was ultimately one of Hammer’s most innovative. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of their most successful. Critics and fans alike seemed confused. After years of complaining that Hammer product was stale and old fashioned, they seemed upset that Vampire Circus wasn’t stale and old fashioned. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break, can you? Young went on to work steadily in film and television, and in 1997 directed the all time classic…ummm…Blood Monkey. And no, that isn’t one of my frequent typos. The movie is not Blood Money, but Blood Monkey. F. Murray Abraham was in it, so you know it was classy.
It’s a shame that, as of this writing, Vampire Circus remains missing in action in the United States. In fact, I believe it’s missing in action in England as well. It’s really one of Hammer’s most impressive, quirkiest efforts. I’m afraid that I’ve gotten lost and dreamy in my review of the movie as well, and at this point I’m making no sense and ought to just wrap it up by saying that regardless of how bad things were for Hammer in the 70s, the movies that came out of it were usually very good and very interesting. I don’t know that Vampire circus had the franchise potential Captain Kronos had, but I could have seen a series of films tracing the horrors that follow around a sinister circus of shape-shifting bloodsuckers. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, and Vampire Circus ended up being a one-time deal. It’s a really good one-time deal, though, so if you get the chance to check it out, do it. It’s a much better way to have ended Hammer’s vampire film cycle than was Satanic Rites of Dracula.