Those Swinging’ 70s Vampire Films

The publicity drums are banging away for the May 11th release of Dark Shadows, and it’s making me nostalgic for some of the vampire films of the 1970s. Just as the “love generation” of the previous decade was fading into the sunset, and disco — with its attendant horrible fashions — was on the horizon, vampire films were also breathing their last gasp for a while.

Hammer Films was also getting ready to pack it in. Its last period-piece classic, Vampire Circus, was released in 1971 by 20th Century Fox, heavily cut in America for a PG rating, which was pointless, because the excised perversion was what the movie was all about! As sapphic vamp films go, the 1970 Ingrid Pitt starrer The Vampire Lovers isn’t bad, but 1971’s Twins of Evil is ridiculous. And the less said about Allan Gibson’s Dracula updates — Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula — the better.

The original Dark Shadows series starring the recently departed Jonathan Frid has its devoted followers, but that’s a cult I don’t really understand. I was just a little kid when it was on, but I still remember watching Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman and thinking, “Jesus, this woman is a hambone.” I kept waiting for the creepy stuff to happen, but it was a lo-o-o-o-ng wait.

Much better were the movies. They had much more vampire activity and lots of gore (for the time). The first, House of Dark Shadows, starred most of the cast, including Hall and Frid, and plays like a faster, gorier version of the series.

The image that sticks in my mind in House is Barnabas getting really, really old (thanks to jealous Dr. Hoffman) and trying desperately to get some blood to reverse the process. Makeup artist Dick Smith (who also did The Exorcist) re-used the bald head appliance he made for Dustin Hoffman in 1970’s Little Big Man on Frid. To restore his youth, he goes to Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and puts the bite on her. Enjoy Hall’s hilarious emoting and the humorous makeup on Frid here:

I remember going to the good old Avon Art Theater (which, despite the highfalutin’ name, served as my hometown South Bend’s exploitation/trash house during the 1970s) to see Robert Quarry as Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Even today, it’s surprising that this American International pickup got a GP (the predecessor to PG) rating, as it’s pretty sleazy. Originally conceived as a softcore porn film, it still has aspects of its original, dirtier self. There’s at least one inexplicit but extended sex scene and women are running around in see-through blouses with their nipples a-poppin’.

Interestingly, the scene most everyone still talks about is the one in which the recently-vampirized chick is caught eating a kitten. Allegedly this scene was heavily trimmed to get the lower rating so that you could barely see what was going on, but maybe I saw a less brutally cut print, because I certainly remember the shock scene quite clearly, emphasized by the sickly green low-budget cinematography.

The Return of Count Yorga arrived in 1971, followed by The Deathmaster the following year. Neither one is very good, but the wise folks at American International decided to refer to Yorga as the deathmaster in the first film, making it confusing to audiences which film was which. But it didn’t really matter — neither one had the sleazy charm of the first Yorga.

American International also made sure the blaxploitation circuit was served with 1972’s Blacula, starring the elegant William Marshall as Mamuwalde, an African prince resurrected in (then) present-day Los Angeles to encounter all manner of jive-talking stereotypes. 1973’s indifferent sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, also features the awesome Pam Grier. It’s a tragedy that AIP didn’t hire writer/director Jack Hill — the king of exploitation and blaxploitation — to oversee these films. They’d have been so much better…maybe even classics.

More serious-minded was 1973’s Ganja and Hess, starring Night of the Living Dead‘s Duane Jones as a scientist who becomes infected with an insatiable need for human blood. Considered a rare example of ’70s African-American art cinema, it owes more to Buñuel than Blacula.

Another arty vampire flick from 1973 was Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural starring cult fave Cheryl (Rainbeaux) Smith as the title character, a backwoods girl who runs afoul of a pack of bloodsuckers, one of whom (Leslie Gibb) wants to get to know her a whole lot better. Dismissed upon its original release, the film was rediscovered in the ’90s and now has a cult following, especially after the untimely demise of Smith in 2002.

1971’s Daughters of Darkness, starring Last Year At Marienbad‘s Delphine Seyrig, brought Euro arthouse eroticism to the forefront. She plays a mysterious, Dietrich-style countess who seduces a pair of young travelers in an eerie coastal hotel. Seyrig is a striking bloodsucker and it’s easy to see why both Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) are so easily swayed.

Those who remember Karlen as Tyne Daly’s bearish husband in “Cagney and Lacey” will be shocked to see how young and well-built he is in this film. Though not explicitly gory, it’s got some Eurostyle nudity and a great vampire death-by-shower scene.

Bob (A Christmas Story) Clark and scripter Alan Ormsby blended the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” with a Vietnam war protest to make 1974’s Dead of Night, aka Deathdream, about a soldier, Andy (Richard Backus), who’s killed in action but whose mother wishes for him to come back to her. He does, and his elated parents think the reports of his death had been a clerical error, but actually dead and must feed on human blood to stave off the decaying process. Andy spends his days brooding in his room, refusing to see friends and relatives and only going out at night, behavior his parents write off as battle shock. But they soon realize there’s something even more terrifying wrong with their son.

Clark and Ormsby had previously made the cheap and overrated zombie comedy Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, so it’s surprising that this grim, sober and effective little shocker would come from them. It manages to be both eerie and tragic and still has an emotional heft today. When it was shown on KHJ’s Movie Macabre in 1982, Elvira’s puns and interruptions seemed terribly out of place.

Of course, there was time for vampire comedy before the ’70s wound down. David Niven appeared in 1975’s Old Dracula, a dreadful spoof whose original title — Vampira — was altered by hopeful distributors praying that fans of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein would race to the boxoffice. They didn’t.

1979’s Love at First Bite was more successful. George Hamilton is fine as the Lugosi-style vampire who travels from his native Transylvania to New York to find his bride, but Arte Johnson is a big slice of ham as his devoted assistant, and Susan Saint James, channeling Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane in the previous year’s Superman, is annoying. However, if I was forced to choose, I’d definitely prefer to sit through this than Brook’s 1995 disaster Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

So which camp will Burton’s Shadows reboot fall into — brilliant black comedy or awful spoof? I’ll find out on May 18th, at which time I’ll post my review.

One thought on “Those Swinging’ 70s Vampire Films

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