Saturday, April 7, 2018

Blood of Ghastly Horror (Al Adamson, 1972)

Blood of Ghastly Horror manages to pull off the insanely difficult feat of being uniquely strange and boring at the same time. I can't really recommend this film, but it's one of a kind, even though it's technically two of a kind. I'll explain. The bulk of this film uses footage from two previous Al Adamson movies, the first released in the mid-1960s as Psycho a Go-Go. That movie was a crime thriller about a jewel heist gone bad. When it didn't make much money, Adamson decided to retool it as a horror film, shooting some additional scenes about mad scientists and brain transplants and releasing it in the late 1960s as The Fiend with the Electronic Brain. In 1972, he decided to combine elements from both of those films and add some voodoo zombies and homicide detectives to the mix because why the hell not, and Blood of Ghastly Horror was born.
Needless to say, the transitions aren't seamless. The characters in the '70s horror portion of the movie frequently explain how this part of the action is connected to the previously released footage, the image gets wavy while they talk, and then we get a lengthy flashback sequence from Psycho a Go-Go and/or The Fiend with the Electronic Brain. In the case of the latter retooling, we even get flashbacks within flashbacks.The three parts of the film blend awkwardly, and it's a little too obvious that this nutty-ass movie is actually three nutty-ass movies Frankensteined together.
So, what the hell is this thing even about? I'll make an attempt at a broad synopsis. Joe Corey is a Vietnam vet who has been severely psychologically damaged by the war. His doctor, Howard Vanard, has been experimenting with electronic brain simulators that can replace damaged parts of the brain and allow the patient to function normally again. He experiments on Corey without his consent, and the brain transplantation goes wrong. The doc accidentally erases Corey's empathy and judgment, and Corey becomes a murderer, a thief, a member of a crime syndicate, and a creep to women. He's part of a big jewel heist and some messed-up stuff that results from the robbery. Meanwhile, Corey's dad, a scientist who spent time studying voodoo, vows revenge on everyone who hurt his son. He does this by kidnapping people and turning them into his zombie slaves. 
I salute and honor insane ideas like this, but the results are mostly less than intriguing. Adamson occasionally stumbles into a cool shot or a suspenseful scene, but the majority of the film is stiff and labored, and a chase in the mountains goes on for an interminable length of time. His framing of shots is extremely weird, and actors are, seemingly at random, sometimes shown in extreme closeup with only a quarter of their face in the frame and sometimes presented more conventionally. This is also a film where violence against men is dealt with quickly, but the camera lingers when women are the victims, with only a few exceptions.
The cast of mostly unknowns features two well-known actors on the downward slide of fame. John Carradine plays Dr. Vanard, and former Disney star Tommy Kirk is one of the homicide detectives. Behind the camera, though, was a major talent paying his dues early in his career. Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond shot the Psycho a Go-Go portion of the film, and he went on to a pretty amazing career that lasted until a few years before his death in 2016. After a decade of work in low-budget obscurities, Zsigmond was the cinematographer for McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Hired Hand, Images, Deliverance, The Long Goodbye, Scarecrow, Cinderella Liberty, The Sugarland Express, Obsession, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, some of The Last Waltz, The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate, Blow Out, Real Genius, The Witches of Eastwick, The Crossing Guard, and two seasons of The Mindy Project.  

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Blood for Dracula (Paul Morrissey, 1974)

Also known as Andy Warhol's Dracula, Blood for Dracula is a companion film to the previous year's Flesh for Frankenstein, sharing writer/director Paul Morrissey, special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi (who went on to create E.T. and the psychic sex monster in Zulawski's Possession), most of the same sets, Warhol's name for marketing purposes, three leading actors (Joe Dallesandro, Udo Kier, and Arno Jürging), and a peculiar and distinctive tone and sensibility. I love these films.
Blood for Dracula opens with a pale and sickly Count Dracula (Udo Kier) urged by his servant Anton (Arno Jürging) to leave Romania for Italy. In order for the Count to maintain his immortality, he needs the blood of virgins (pronounced "wirgins" throughout), but the modern world is too full of people getting it on. Anton and Drac believe Italy's devout Catholics keep their pants on until marriage, ensuring an untainted blood supply. Meanwhile, down-on-their-luck aristocrats the Di Fiores live in a decaying mansion in the Italian countryside. Il Marchese Di Fiore (Vittorio De Sica) has gambled away the fortune, and La Marchesa (former model and food writer Maxime McKendry, in her only film role) thinks a wealthy Romanian count looking for a bride is just the ticket to get the Di Fiores rich again. The poor Di Fiores are in such dire straits that they can only afford one servant, handyman Mario (Joe Dallesandro), and they have to occasionally set aside their leisure for actual work. They're even reduced to making their own wicker furniture. The horror, the horror!
The Di Fiores have four daughters, and they believe two of the four are good candidates for a marriage to the pale Count. The oldest daughter, Esmeralda (Milena Vukotic), is considered a washed-up old maid by the rest of the family due to a previous engagement that almost resulted in marriage and her general old-timey, goody-two-shoes vibe, and the youngest daughter, Perla (Silvia Dionisio), is only fourteen and not ready for marriage. That leaves the middle sisters, Saphiria (Dominique Darel) and Rubinia (Stefania Casini). Unfortunately for old Drac, these two sisters are wild, decadent, modern, and horny, and they both have a lot of sex with Mario and, sometimes, each other. Dracula thinks he's getting some fresh virgin blood, but, to paraphrase hard rock legends Judas Priest, he's got another thing coming.
Morrissey captures the damnedest tone, occupying a strange space between homage and parody without landing on either side. Part of this is due to Morrissey letting each actor use his or her own accent. The characters are either Romanians or Italians, but the cast contains Germans, Brits, Americans, Italians, French, and Poles, all speaking in their own regional dialects. The film is hysterically funny and tongue-in-cheek without being campy, and Morrissey both critiques and pays tribute to classic horror, the European art film, the soft-core sex film in the Radley Metzger vein, aristocratic decadence, left- and right-wing politics, and the emerging proto-punk sensibility (particularly in the scenes of Kier vomiting tainted blood). Dracula is a whining, pampered, pathetic figure here, subservient to his assistant, sickly, easily tricked. It's a hilarious indictment of the aging, posturing hipster, but Morrissey is a complex guy who also recognizes how attractively funny and charismatic that kind of person can be.
Morrissey also uses Dallesandro's handyman character, Mario, to make some sharp points. Mario is a socialist who is constantly talking about the workers' revolution, but he's also a sexist pig who takes his frustrations at the rich out on the sisters, humiliating them, forcing himself on them, slapping them around. They use him, too, and Rubinia seems to get off on the rough treatment. There's a lot going on with this character, and Morrissey depicts a world where the class divide brutalizes everyone, and where unearned wealth makes people decadent and empty, but he also recognizes the hypocrisy in many male lefties who preach equality and utopia and revolution while treating women like shit. In the end, though, Mario, the only one who knows what it's like to work for a living, is also the only one who realizes what's happening and does something about it. (I'm not sure what Morrissey's politics were during the mid-'70s, but he's very politically conservative in his '80s and '90s interviews while holding some pretty wild and unorthodox opinions about art and aesthetics at the same time. The left and right both get hit hard in this movie.)
It's also fascinating that Morrissey cast Vittoria De Sica in the role of the Di Fiore patriarch. De Sica was a prominent filmmaker alongside his acting career, and he made his reputation directing neo-realist classics like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. By the end of his directing career, he was making a lot of frothy, colorful entertainments (with the occasional exception pointing back toward his early films, such as The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, though even these films were splashier and more conventionally professional). Was Morrissey making a parallel between the Marchese's move from prominence to decadence and De Sica's own trajectory from pioneering artist to professional entertainer? Whatever the case, De Sica is very funny in the part, which was one of his last. He died later that year.
If you haven't seen Blood for Dracula yet, what are you waiting for? It's got it all. Gore, sex, comedy, some beautiful shot compositions, political satire, great sets, sibling rivalry, practical coffin transportation tips, and Udo Kier, baby!