Where I live, we don't have proper seasons, so I often have to kick off Autumn through artificial means, like buying tons of Halloween decorations, or watching a movie that lets me imagine an added crispness in the air. BCI's recent release of COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE (titled in their double bill with VAMPIRE HOOKERS as CEMETERY GIRLS) gave me the opportunity to do so with one of Paul Naschy's best films, a riff on the Dracula mythology that has very little to do with Bram Stoker, but still has a uniquely Spanish aesthetic that makes it a pleasure to watch. The film starts off with scenes and scenarios that seem lifted straight out of a Hammer production--in fact, DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS comes most immediately to mind, with a plot that starts with a group of stage-coach travelers stranded in the Borgo Pass. Naturally, they wind up in Dracula's abode, which apparently spent time as a mental asylum, and the group gradually falls prey to the vampire (who has disguised himself as Dr. Marlow) in a way that echoes the earlier Fisher movie.
However, the recognizable Hammer tropes give way to something more akin to Jean Rollin by the end, as the film increasingly grows more surreal and less governed by plot and dialogue and more by so by image and monologue. As the lover of one of the women, Victor Alcazar's character appears set up as the film's hero, strong, sexually desirable to women, with instincts to protect. However, he falls victim to vampirism himself fairly early in the film, a departure from what we would expect from a Hammer film, where we generally see women placed in positions of dependency to men. In fact, the general attitude toward evil in COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE appears skewed when compared to traditional Dracula films: Instead of standing as the source of control over a monolithic evil, Naschy's Dracula creates other vampires that he not only can't control, but with whom he seems decidedly at odds.
Of course, the filmmakers may have devised this kind of characterization so that we can see Naschy's Dracula play hero at convenient spots in the film, killing his share of vampires and serving as the male protector in these scenes. However, he still seems the embodiment of evil he cannot control and, at times, genuinely seems to regret. (How often do we get to see such a tender moment involving Dracula as when he frees a trapped rabbit?) With its off-kilter approach, COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE takes its place in a canon of Spanish vampire films that include THE DRACULA SAGA and THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE, films that take risks and subvert the traditional narrative that Universal and Hammer had taught us to expect.
In an earlier post, I linked screenshots that suggested that the BCI disc would offer a substantial improvement over previous releases of the film. I'm happy to report that this is indeed the case; while not in pristine condition, BCI's print still offers the film in what appears to be close to the original aspect ratio. Very highly recommended.
Antonio Margheriti directs this inky Italian gothic from a script by the prolific Ernesto Gastaldi, with obvious inspiration from Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY. THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH may pale in comparison, but I still find that it has plenty to offer on its own. The above image beautifully captures the despair of Barbara Steele's character, Helen, as she simultaneously mourns the death of her mother, burned for witchcraft, and seems to use still flaming embers to call upon otherworldly forces, having unsuccessfully sacrificed her virginity to the cruel count in a bid to save her mother. As a whole, Margheriti's film may not be able to match Bava's, but he still manages to give us one of the most memorable scenes in 1960s Italian gothic horror.
The plot develops this way: After Helen is murdered, we watch the accused witch's other daughter, Elizabeth, grow up to eventually marry the count's son, Kurt. Consistent with the theme of doubling that seems to run through Italian gothic horror, the same actress, Halina Zalewska, plays both the executed witch and Elizabeth, but as usual, Barbara Steele, er, steals the show with her portrayal of Helen, who comes back from the dead during a stormy night and imposes herself in the family drama taking place in the castle. Kurt and Elizabeth have a chilly relationship, and it doesn't take long for Kurt to decide that he prefers Helen, and the two plot to murder Elizabeth.
As with any good gothic horror, however, things prove to be different than they seem, and Kurt finds that his plans to live happily ever after with Helen have taken a back-seat to someone else's intentions for revenge. Moreover, as with any good Italian gothic, we see secret passageways, madness, weighty religious iconography, and most importantly, a decent allotment of rotting corpses, including some impressive re-animation scenes. Roger Corman may have gotten to these themes and tropes earlier with his Poe adaptations (including his own Barbara Steele vehicle, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM), but I still find Margheriti's film more satisfying in several ways. Somehow he makes the presence of dark magic seem very real and ominous.
Often derided as "dull," especially by contemporary audiences, Carl Theodor Dreyer's VAMPYR marks a surrealist, European response to the American-style sound horror film kicked off by Universal Studios' DRACULA. In fact, Dreyer reportedly watched Browning's film and conjured up VAMPYR as his own attempt to create something equally marketable. Yet his vision takes us into landscapes beyond the gothic walls of Browning's film, something in which occult influences threaten to break down the very structure of reality itself. Professing to draw from Sheridan Le Fanu's seminal vampire text, CARMILLA, VAMPYR actually bears little resemblance to its source, replacing the youthful, voluptuous vampire with something more akin to the "crone" of witchcraft lore.
Possessing very little in the way of a conventional narrative, the story follows David Gray, a student of the occult, who comes upon a small village plagued by the elderly vampire and her servant, a physician who instead of properly treating his patients, actually helps the vampire feed upon them. Hardly a traditional hero, Gray seems almost helpless as shadows move of their own volition, and in the most visually eerie moment of the film, he falls asleep during a crucial point and as a shadow/ghost, his gazes upon his own corpse as it is prepared for burial.
Dreyer's artistic sensibility brings the film to life, emphasizing image over narrative, and in at least this regard, he lays the groundwork for the European horror film for decades to come, as evident whenever we hear charges that European horror directors emphasize "style over substance." While relatively tame in terms of sexuality, hints of perversion bubble beneath the surface of the film, and we even see one of the vampire's victims bound up in a way that calls to mind some of the later, kinkier images of Jess Franco.
Perhaps VAMPYR does move a bit languidly, but I still find it a fascinating experience, one that culminates in one of the more disturbing moments in 1930s horror, as we see the vampire's servant meet his end in a scene that seems unnaturally drawn out. Definitely worth one's time, though avoid late night viewings when you're prone to falling asleep--you may have disturbing dreams.
In his autobiography, MEMOIRS OF A WOLFMAN, Paul Naschy describes how the scene of his birth on Sept 6th, 1934 looked through the eyes of his father. Naschy writes, "My father once told me that he'd looked up at the sky at dusk and it had seemed to be steeped in blood." He goes on to say that it "was September 6 at six in the morning; it only needed one more six to complete the Satanic triad." So begins the life of Paul Naschy, one that impacted Spanish horror cinema with films like VENGEANCE OF THE MUMMY, COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE, HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB, the recent ROJO SANGRE, and the stunning series of Waldemar Daninsky werewolf movies beginning with MARK OF THE WOLF MAN. The still above comes from THE NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF, a film released in 1980 that Naschy directed as well as starred in.
Soon, BCI will release COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE in anamorphic widescreen, and while they did not go back to the original negative, the results are evidently still very much worth seeing. Go over to this thread at the Latarnia forums to see screen-shots. Also, I'm currently reading BRIDES OF THE IMPALER by Edward Lee, one of my favorite "splatterspunk" authors, and while it's relatively toned down compared to his previous work, it functions as a loving homage to Eurohorror films of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, including the films of Naschy. Check it out.