A COLLECTION OF VIDEO VAMPIRES
During the late sixties and early seventies, the urbane Jonathan Frid, as Barnabas Collins, kept vampires in the fore on the weekday-afternoon
series Dark Shadows. Gradually, outer space overtook the undead as the
favored stuff of viewers, much as it had in the fifties–at least until Hammer Films came along and made those “B” Martian and giant bug flicks really look like junk. Within the last year and a half, however, two made-for-TV movies and one short serial have brought the vampire into prime time, and one two-part story on a regular series poked very skillful fun at vampire story clichés.
“The Curse of Dracula” on NBC’s short-lived Cliffhangers series brought the old boy to San Francisco as a professor of East European history–night classes only, of course. He is found out by Man’, a young woman whose mother he had “killed” some ten years earlier. The daughter, aided by Kurt Van Helsing. grandson of guess whom, finds Dracula’s where abouts, and Kurt delivers the requisite coup de grace with a crossbow.
All of this sounds like the standard shtick of quickie, exploitation films, which only goes to show that you can’t judge a production by its plot. For all its slickness, “The Curse of Dracula” had that rarest of beasts meaning. This all happens because the images, allusions, and dialogue are so carefully chosen that they produce genuine artistic effect in something which was still obviously made to cash in on tin- recent Dracula boom.
A few examples: Mary (Carol Baxter) confronts Dracula (Michael Nouri) with her mother’s death. “You killed her!” she accuses. “But I did love her,” he calmly replies. The sense of that bond between love and death was never more eloquently phrased. Mary later tells Kim, “Thai really threw me.” Later in the story, after Man- has been twice bitten, Amanda, who is now a vampire, semis her to a convent for protection.
To reach her, Dracula has to walk through the convent cemetery, in which all the markers arc uniform wooden crosses, some of which are rotting and leaning from age. For a TV series, the image of Dracula walking through a garden of his own symbol is quite masterful. As if to silence the Freud-and-the-Fantastic crowd, the show also had Amanda beg Mary to drive the stake through her heart. “You won’t be killing me, you’ll be freeing me,” she implores. The staking scene is surprisingly tame, but then the censors” toughness with networks, while letting independent stations go wild, has always amazed me.
Finally, Dracula’s death scene: his last coffin was hidden in a warehouse in which wax figures were kept. The place is already on fire when Kurt shoots him with a crossbow; Dracula falls back and, after Kurt and Mary leave, the figures melt around him— both the Count and they were imitations of living forms.
Throughout, Michael Nouri maintained the dignity and tragedy of his character, in what could all too easily have become a hokey spoof. All the pscudopsychoanalytic prattle about what blood symbolizes is dismantled when his Count tells Mary: “I do not live to partake of it; I partake of it to live.” Or at least his version of life. And the irony of his five centuries of solitude and fugitive flight is perfectly expressed when he says, “There are many addictions-drugs, alcohol. But the worst addiction of all is the addiction to life. To be alive, no matter how lonely it may be.” To put Dracula across nowadays as a tragic hero, or antihero, is a difficult business—here was one of the few and far between successes.
Anton Voteck (Richard Lynch) as ABC’s “Vampire” is a totally different animal altogether. The story begins with an interesting-if vaguely familiar-proposition: the foundation of a new church is being dedicated, with a nice panning shot of its huge cross, but, unbeknownst to the builders, it is very near the ruins of an old estate. In the catacombs of the mansion, Voteck and a priest battled it out years ago; the priest was killed, and “Vampire” has been trapped dormant since then. If the scenario is starting to echo “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave,” one shouldn’t be surprised. From here the story plods along, trying to be chic and sexy; it succeeds in the former, but fails hilariously in the latter,
The usual clichés are present: the vampire-hunter throwing open a coffin—which is hidden in an old windmill, no less—only to find his missing girl inside. But a windmill in Southern California isn’t ridiculous enough: Voteck carts another lass off to a mausoleum complete with couch. This gag doesn’t work as well, however. Voteck calls her man in classic kidnapper style; when he orders Voteck not to touch her, the vampire replies, “Oh, I’m going to touch her, and when I do, she’s going to love it.” This is more the line of a rapist than a seducer, which may be only fitting, since Voteck runs around in a double-breasted white suit and white-lined, three-quarter length cloak which make him look more like a pimp than anything else.
Repugnant though he is, the audience doesn’t get to sec Voteck destroyed. Cornered by his opponents outside his marble love nest, he simply runs off among the tomb stones. The End. This cheat ending got a lot of complaints from viewers, including this one: the destruction of Michael Nouri’s Dracula was a four- Kleenex affair, but I would have cheered Voteck’s demise.
The problem with “Vampire” is that it is all show and no substance. The makers of “The Curse of Dracula” managed to take a gimmicky situation and turn it into something meaningful, plausible. Too, they had enough sense to know when something was just plain funny, e.g., Dracula stowing a spare coffin in a coffin factory storage house.
“Vampire,” by contrast, tries too hard to be too serious and to show the vampire as Great Lover, without working in any of the other, perhaps less desirable, aspects of undeath. Ultimately, though, the adrnen for “Vampire” were the ones who over played their hand. One of their taglines reads: “No woman can resist him.” That’s what they think.
And just when television had us convinced that, for better or worse, vampires were sexy, along came Salem’s Loi to prove them wrong, at least some of the time. Not having read the thick Stephen King novel, I cannot venture any observations on the almost inevitable divergences from the written word which occur when print is transformed into celluloid. I’ll simply say that Salem’s Lot conies across as something of a cross between Nosferatu and Night of the Living Dead, with a touch of Psycho thrown in.
In many respects, Salem’s Lot, as a story, is representative of the “Dracula Goes Main Street” school: we have the requisite spooky, old abandoned house purchased by a just-a-little abnormal stranger; the disgruntled small-town woman; the intelligent, inquisitive hero; and The Thing. The difference is, this story is really scary, and its Thing is the chief reason. The Peyton Place filler (unhappy children, cheating spouses) is unfortunate, only because too often it looks like filler, as well as suggests that this is real life in modern times, on a mass scale: who needs vampires with all this mortal chaos?
‘While originally released by CBS in 1979 as a two-part television movie special, Salem’s Lot is now distributed to theaters by Serendipity Films, Inc.
Producer Richard Kobritz, in an interview in Cinafantastique, said that he gave Barlow the Vampire (Reggie Nalder) a neo-Nosferatu look because “I didn’t want a smarmy, romantic sentimental Frank Langella vampire for Salem’s Lot. What I wanted was the essence of evil—a monster. And that’s what I got.” He certainly did. The punch line is that, while comparing Barlow to the Langella Dracula is equivalent to the classic comparison of apples and oranges, one must admit that the apples of Salem’s Lot do what they intend to (i.e., terrify) while those smarmy oranges were chloroform on film.
However, makeup isn’t everything. Insofar as he gets to “act” proper, Nalder is quite good as the repulsive Barlow. Another surprise is David Soul, late of the gang-busting Starsky and Hutch, who appears as the articulate Ben Mears, a young writer who goes home again to purge the town of the threat. Finally, James Mason as Straker, the off-kilter stranger who purchases the Marston house as headquarters for “the Master.”
Salem’s Lot’s greatest surprise, if not innovation, was its portrayal of child vampires. Ergo, anyone put off by the representations of children in the Omen and Exorcist movies should avoid this one. It’s one thing for kiddies to be possessed, demonic, or just plain weird, but the sight of Ralphie Glick (Ronnie Scribner) floating white-faced and neon-eyed into his brother Danny’s (Brad Savage) bedroom is doubtless too much for the children-are-beautiful crowd. Now about that infant that Dracula brings to his wives. . . .
The Living Dead scenario is revived in Barlow’s vampirizing a number of
townspeople. Marjorie Glick (Clarissa Kaye, Mason’s wife) is one of them, and her resurrection in the town morgue is one of those classic scenes which are both hilarious and chilling at the same time, and probably for the same reasons. Ben Mears repels her with a cross made of taped-together tongue depressors (remember “Count Yorga, Vampire”?) and she disintegrates in true Nosferatu style. At the climax, a whole group, buried in the Marston house cellar, awakens and tries to crawl out, as Mears stakes Barlow. But this is not all: Mears and Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) journey to
Mexico or some such place to seek out the rest of the undead, and find one of the lovely lasses of Salem’s Lot lying undead in a hut. So much for happy endings.
Obviously, Salon’s Lot is quite the proverbial switch from the first two tales, one of which was a tragedy, the other an unwitting comedy. It is a good old horror movie, despite the spook-next-door motif, and one of those rare instances in which the gimmick works. My only criticism is that it may have worked better, viewing-wise, as a shorter, one-sitting piece, rather than a two-parter with a week between installments. Still, it was a good monster movie with a genuine monster: as Kobritz says, that’s what it’s all about.
As a closing note, I must mention “War of the Cods,” a two-parter on Battlestar: Galactica which featured Patrick Macnee as Count Iblis. In case being a Count isn’t evidence per se enough of vampirehood, here’s some more: he’s a handsome, charming, mysterious alien in a (off-white) velvet cape. He has no heartbeat, no pulse, “no signs of life” when tested on the sneak, and the young lady of the story is absolutely swept off her feet: “He’s the only man who ever really understood me!”
The point is that all of this is done to the hilt and beyond, so that one laughs with the gag and not at it. Iblis is on the run from the galactic good guys (old-fashioned angels in acetate wings) for various depredations. He still has his own angelic powers, now, of course, in fallen form, and uses them to draw the Galactica crew into his power. All except Adama and Apollo, who unmask him finally: “Don’t you remember the old leg ends about Mephistopheles?” Like Voteck, he just disappears at the end, but this time for a reason: the Devil is, in his way, immortal, and man must wrangle with him time and again.
The irony of this is that, in spite of the tongue-in-cheek satire, “War of the Gods” got the Dracula myth back to basics with the whole Miltonic/Byronic business of the appeal of the darkest villain, the Devil (or son of, as the name Dracula denotes) and the ever-presence of some dark, evil element. The setting is almost Batmanesque camp, but maybe because the story never takes itself too seriously, it gets something across while still being very funny. [If the show ever comes back in UHF reruns, try to catch this one: it's worth it just to see "Mr. Steed in Outer Space."]
I won’t go into the heavy meanings of the story, simply because there weren’t any other than the ones illustrated in the quotes from the show, but will end by saying that, like Love at First Bite, this routine managed to provoke yuks and thought from the same pool of material: an evening’s amusement in front of the TV, and some good one-liners to remember too. One can’t ask for more from prime-time, commercial programming.
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