Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Where were you last night....?"

Vampires have never really been America's thing. The best ones are made by Europeans and Mexicans and Asian counties make a decent effort as well. Not that anyone asked but I'd kill to see an East African vampire movie or maybe one from Thailand or Malaysia or thereabouts. I swear I get tired of the same old same old. Not that today's vampire films don't have new things to offer, they do, but the real issue is the ending. If you're watching a revisionist vampire movie (one with more in common with The Wolfman than most) you know the ending, and if you're watching one in the Dracula mold, you know the ending. There is just no predicting how Thirst or Alucarda are going to end; The Vampire and The Return of Dracula are less well-endowed in the mystery department. They do skate by on inventiveness of script in the former case and accomplished filmmaking in the latter, but they could have used some of the fervor and mood of their Mexican counterparts; Paul Landres was a fine director but not quite the visionary these films needed to outdo the likes of Hammer Studios, who would take all the credit for the vampire boom in 1958. The Horror of Dracula would make shadow dwellers of Landres' two films but considering there hadn't been a major American vampire film (worth watching) in ten years they could have been lazy and terrible.

The Vampire
by Paul Landres
In a fascinatingly unflinching opening credits sequence a boy on a bike brings a box to one Dr. Matthew Campbell. In the box, a small animal. The camera never breaks its gaze from the boy as completely overwrought Gerald Fried music blasts and honks like there's no tomorrow. If for no other reason, The Vampire is worth watching than this laughably incongruous intro. Anyway Campbell is a certified quack and is dying from whatever mad venture he'd gotten into in his basement laboratory. The boy fetches neighborhood physician Paul Beecher who arrives just in time to hear the dying man's last request: to know the time. It's a head scratcher and all Beecher can determine is that what killed Campbell is heart failure and he tells the sheriff, Buck Donnelly, when he shows up a while later. Beecher confiscates the pills from the dead doctor and heads home. Aside from his chipper daughter, hot new assistant, and latest patient, the other thing waiting for him at home is a headache. He asks Betsy to fetch him his pills, but wouldn't you know it, she accidentally slips him the ones Campbell died with. Yeah, that's not good.

Well tomorrow brings a whole new headache for Beecher to contend with. Yesterday's patient, Marion Wilkins is much worse than she was yesterday and when she gets an eyeful of the doctor she shrieks and cries, begging for him to get away and then her weak heart kills her. Beecher's naturally distraught, especially because he can't shake the feeling that he did more than indirectly cause his patients' massive coronary, maybe something to do with the two bite marks on Marion's neck. Donnelly picks at that scab by telling the doctor about the reports he got about a prowler in the neighborhood last night. Add to that Beecher's having blacked out and not remembering anything and you've got reasonable suspicion that he's been very naughty. Backup arrives in the form of Dr. Will Beaumont and his assistant Henry. These two work for the university that paid for Campbell's research and want to pick up the pieces in the hopes that they'll figure out what it is that brought on his early demise. Campbell was making some kind of control serum out of the blood of vampire bats. What worries Beecher is that Henry and Will figure out that all the animals Campbell tested died from something called capillary disintegration. So, won't he just maybe suffer from the same thing unless he takes more of Campbell's pills? And won't he maybe cause another vampire-bite heart attack if he does so?

Commentators have noted that The Vampire is probably a reply to The Werewolf, a very fifties take on the werewolf movie with a scientific explanation for the lycanthrope of the title. So I guess it makes sense that the movie's central performance (easily the best in the film) owes so much to Lon Chaney Jr.'s turn as Larry Talbot in The Wolfman. John Beal puts on a mopey face when he's human and a very wolfy face when he's a vampire. The make-up doesn't work half as well as Beal's performance, which is the highlight of the movie. He manages real moments of pathos when at his lowest moments, though he occasionally verges on whiny, and his is a fresh take on cinematic vampires. Beecher has nothing of the usual grace of Dracula and his ilk; he's just an animal, an important step in the evolution of the vampire in movies. There are a few other things to recommend it, mannered direction and a pretty bitchin' skeleton effect among them, but mostly its Beal that makes The Vampire worth watching.
I wasn't bowled over by The Vampire but I wasn't alone in being pleasantly entertained by it. The next year saw Landres heading the same team to make a second vampire movie, much more in line with the likes of Hammer Studios and Cinematográfica ABSA's updates. This movie saw a vampire, actually answering to the name Dracula, literally coming out of Transylvania and infecting small town America. Doesn't come more obvious than that does it? That The Return of Dracula opened against The Horror of Dracula, the film that saved Universal studios from bankruptcy, probably ensured its obscurity but relatively speaking the two movies are just about equal in measure. If anything Return is the more tasteful of the two movies, which maybe explains why it didn't save anyone's career. If audiences went ballistic for a new colourized Dracula replete with heaving corsets and bloody fangs, what chance did a subdued suburban take on the same story have of winning a following? The 60s were nearly upon us, people wanted gore and sex, damnit! The Return of Dracula had an engrossing and almost sweetly sentimental yarn about life turned upside down, not the violent, Technicolor peep show people wanted.

The Return of Dracula
by Paul Landres
In Transylvania, a group of government officials and a priest arrive at a cemetery with torches, hammers and stakes. The grave they're after turns out to be empty when they get to it, which is bad news for Bellack Gordal. Gordal is a painter leaving for the US to visit his last remaining relatives having grown tired of living under in poverty under a regime he doesn't agree with. He settles into his train car but fails to notice his roommate, a man with a hat covering his face who may or may not have just escaped from a torch-bearing mob. When the train leaves the station, the man in the hat gets the better of the fatigued artist and he never arrives at his destination...but someone answering to the name Bellack Gordal sure does. A few weeks later when the last train pulls into Carleton, CA the Mayberry family is waiting for Gordal and you and I aren't there to fill them in when he shows up mysteriously after all the passengers have cleared off. Cora, the widowed mother of the family, hasn't seen her cousin Bellack since he was three years old, so she could be welcoming Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee for all she knows. The kids, young Mickey and late-teenaged Rachel, have never laid eyes on the man and so everyone welcomes him with open arms. Lucky for Count Dracula they're also completely unfamiliar with the habits of an artist so it seems like charming eccentricity when their foreign cousin sleeps all day behind a locked door, rarely eats and refuses to meet the local reverend. Once the count has put his vice-like grip on Jenny Blake, a blind girl who Rachel looks after, he starts thinking longterm. Aside from the distrust of Tim Hansen, the local boy who Rachel's probably been kissing in secret since they were kids, the only hope of stopping the fake artist from making Carleton the next Transylvania is John Meierman, the leader of the mob from the start of the film. He's followed up on every passenger who rode with the real Gordal ever since they found his body discarded on the train tracks just outside Hungary. After spending a few minutes in fake Gordal's presence, his agent has reasonable doubt. And once that agent doesn't make it out of town, Meierman knows he has his man.

The Return of Dracula most endearing feature is the way it basically amps up all the little details from The Vampire. The Vampire made a lot out of its suburban setting but the conflict was nothing new. The Return of Dracula is all about the comings and goings of the Mayberry family (coincidentally, Mayberry is also the name of the town Andy Griffith used to police, which is not a bad frame of reference for Carleton). The members of the club the reverend oversees that throw the Halloween party that Gordal wants to avoid, all seem like real people. Cora, Mickey and Rachel are all stock and average enough characters but there are moments where they seem like people you know. My favourite of these is when Tim, who's feeling a little miffed about all the time Rachel spends talking about and hanging around Bellack. A too-serious remark leads Tim to quip "That's not what you said last night." At which point Norma Eberhardt drops her actorly manner and with a little fatigue and an understanding of her needless melodrama, says "Oh shut up." It's a great, genuine moment and its almost touching, showing you in a second that these two have a long history behind them and a good one ahead of them, too. The Vampire felt breathless but Landres lets his characters breathe a little here so moments like that have a chance to rise to the surface. Similarly between the excellent print I watched and Landres concentration, The Return of Dracula feels like the more artistic film, even if a side-by-side comparison might prove otherwise. Granted it's not Nosferatu or anything but it's always nice to find a B movie that's even a little visually rewarding. I was reminded frequently of Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross, though even that's pushing it; Landres was no Siodmak. Gerald Fried gets a great cue during the opening credits but once again his music is a touch too-huge and Bernard Herrmann-esque to be taken seriously.
Neither The Vampire nor The Return of Dracula was strong enough to take credit for the vampire revival but they were solid movies. They wouldn't have kicked off anything (indeed they were already riding someone else's wave) but without Hammer's massive shadow blocking out their importance it's impossible to tell whether they'd have grown more popular. It's also impossible to deny that vampires were something both filmmakers and audiences wanted to embrace and revisit. It can't be a coincidence that three countries decided to tell the Dracula story their way at exactly the same time and that each found something new to say. Though it was probably The Horror of Dracula that caused Landres to put a grizzly full-colour heart staking in the middle of his black and white vampire movie, he had so many novel ideas that it is kind of a shame that his films weren't the successes they needed to be.

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