Monday, March 27, 2017

DRACULA (1931)



When I reviewed the 1960 PSYCHO, I did so with the knowledge that it had been so exhaustively critiqued that it was difficult to say something new. For that reason I drew comparisons between the film and its somewhat neglected Robert Bloch source-novel. Film critics haven’t written nearly as much about the 1931 DRACULA. But as it’s a classic film and the forerunner of the first horror-craze of the sound era, DRACULA is still pretty well-worn territory.

I’ll again touch on some of the divergences between a film and its source-novel, but only on a few assorted points, particularly since the screenplay reputedly owes less to the novel than to the novel’s stage-adaptation. Still, I think it’s interesting to look at some of the differences as “roads not taken.”

There’s little to say about the film inability to duplicate the novel’s wild supernatural effects. Director Tod Browning had the same considerations as stage productions of the novel: budgetary considerations. Cinematic contrivances did allow Browning and cinematographer Karl Freund (allegedly an associate director in all but name) to give viewers a magnificent illusion of Dracula’s castle, far beyond the resources of theatrical productions. But a major portion of the action takes place in the stagy-looking drawing-room of a manor that doubles as Doctor Seward’s sanatorium, and the one impressive visual seen in Carfax British abbey at the climax doesn’t eradicate the preceding visual tedium.

There are things, though, that a movie could have done as well as a book; things that the DRACULA screenplay didn’t bother to address. The Stoker novel gains great mythic power from picturing modern Transylvania as a wasteland drained by a tyrant who’s been alive for centuries, and who only in 1898 has decided to move on to fresh killing-grounds. Perhaps the Universal film couldn’t give a panoramic view of a whole country. Still, the script could have given more attention to Dracula’s personal history, not least giving him a stronger motive for moving all the way to England. It’s even ambiguous about how long Dracula’s been undead. He makes reference to the “broken battlements” of his land and speaks of the glory of being truly dead. Yet there’s no reference, when the vampire is staked off-camera, to his body's turning to dust (which later becomes a plot-point in DRACULA’S DAUGHTER). Only Bela Lugosi’s superlative performance really sells the image of the Count as the relic of a bygone aristocratic era. This image comes across during the scenes at Castle Dracula, though there’s a similar vibe when he takes as his first victim in London-- a poor flower-seller, before moving on to the higher social strata.

If the character of this Dracula is not as rich as Stoker’s creation, the character of Renfield certainly profits from the changes of the 1931 film. In the novel, he’s just an insane fellow in Seward’s nuthouse. Dracula uses Renfield as a pawn until the demented man becomes fascinated with Mina and betrays his master. Film-Renfield is far more memorable, changing from a slightly stuffy solicitor to a debased mirror image of his master: his passion for devouring insects stemming from an "Imitatio Diaboli." His doglike devotion to Mina isn’t as well developed as it is in the novel, and he doesn’t get a scene in which he’s in any way tempted by the attentions of Dracula’s wives. Still, Frye’s performance as the vampire’s slave may define Renfield even more than Lugosi defines Dracula. 



In contrast, though, Stoker’s resourceful Jonathan Harker becomes a thoroughly meat-headed swain who’s something of a headache for vampire hunter Van Hesling. Edward Van Sloan provides a fine methodical vampire-hunter, though over the years Van Helsing has proven elastic enough to allow for a variety of re-interpretations.



Central to the novel’s structure is the “bad girl/ good girl” dichotomy that many critics consider innate to the culture of Victorian England. The movie makes Mina Murray, who in the book is the friend of the more upper-class Lucy Westenra, the daughter of Doctor Seward. The movie does keep the idea that Dracula goes for Lucy, the “easy get,” before going on to Mina, the “hard get.” This Lucy, though, isn't noticeably upper-class and doesn’t have three men courting her, and the only thing that makes her a little “bad” is that she shows an ardent fascination with Count Dracula even before he starts talking about his “broken battlements. ” In contrast we have “good girl” Mina, who’s securely engaged to the dishrag Harker, which seems to be all that's especially "good" about her. The script mangles the story-potential of Lucy’s vampirization, possibly eliding any conclusion to her plot-line-- which is particularly grisly in the book-- to avoid alienating the audiences of 1931. As for Mina, she lacks the heroic, yet still feminine, dimensions of Stoker’s creation. Only in one sequence does she consciously resist the influence of Dracula after having been forced to drink his blood and become a “pre-vampire.”  Helen Chandler’s best moment with the character occurs when she begins displaying the predatory nature seen in Dracula’s wives. But this scene remains a tease, so that some other actress got the honor of acting out the first female-on-male fanging of cinema’s sound era.

The vampire-mythology of Browning is nowhere near as well developed as Stoker’s, but again, it must be admitted that a book has much more space in which develop such matters. Yet it’s arguable that the movie DRACULA had a far more transformative effect on American cinema than Stoker’s novel did on British fantasy-fiction. There were several novels in the 1800s that might equal DRACULA in terms of developing fantastic concepts. But in American silent films, it was a rare thing to see full-blown fantasy-concepts developed to their utmost, with occasional exceptions like the 1924 THIEF OFBAGDAD and the 1929 MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. Films in the horror subgenre tended toward the uncanny form of the Gothic, with stories like THE CAT AND THE CANARY. But Stoker’s freewheeling synthesis of vampire legends hearkened back to works of marvelous horror like VATHEK and THE MONK, to say nothing of working in a probable parody of Christian lore.



The film’s script is talky, but this has the advantage of laying out the mythology of vampires in a way that a silent film could not. The Count seems positively Satanic as he battles with Van Helsing over the soul of Mina, imparting a mythic vibe to a phrase like, “I shall see that she dies—by night!” He doesn’t succeed, partly due to Renfield’s betrayals. The final scene in Carfax Abbey manages to put across this vibe too, despite Browing’s clumsy mounting. We see Van Helsing and Harker penetrate the abbey, where they find Dracula inert in his coffin. Then Van Helsing kinda-sorta opens another coffin, in which he seems to anticipate finding Mina—though for some reason he doesn’t really look into the coffin. Then there’s a cut to show Mina still alive, off to the corner—and only then does the professor look again, and find the second coffin empty. I would guess that this bit of business is another inheritance from the stage-adaptation, but though it’s far from riveting, it did make me wonder if the scene might have been derived from the Gospel story in which Christ’s followers visit his sepulcher and find it empty. Such a reworking—which resembles nothing in the novel-- compares favorably with Stoker’s recasting of other Christian motifs, even if the film’s Mina is no heroic sufferer; merely a prize to be protected by her future husband and his elderly preceptor. I imagine that Browning was aware of some of these aspects of the original, but I don’t get a sense that they signified anything but aspects of a job he’d been assigned.


That said, DRACULA remains a major game-changer in American cinema. If it had not been made at that particular time—if, say, FRANKENSTEIN, also a popular stage-play, had gotten there first—the game still would have been changed. Still, of the two the vampire-lord has deeper roots in myth and folklore, and so for that reason I’m glad that DRACULA was the first “marvelous Gothic” out of the gate. Bela Lugosi never got another role nearly as crucial as this one, and he certainly had reason to regret being typed as a horror-actor. Still, since he’d been largely doing a lot of exotics and functionary-types before DRACULA, he could have faced a worse fate for an actor: that of total obscurity. Becoming an icon doesn’t always make you rich, but it does provide one with a curious kind of “life after death.” 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

THE WILD WILD WEST REVISITED (1979), MORE WILD WILD WEST (1980)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


TV-series reunions almost never turn out better than mediocre, and the two WILD WILD WEST telefims run true to form. The original show was a fast-paced, thoroughly pulpy transposition of James Bond's superspy tropes into the "wild west" of the 1870s. Two agents of the American Secret Service, tough James West and sneaky Artemis Gordon, fought various threats to the U.S. government, many of whom possessed weird weapons beyond the technology of that time-period. The foremost of the two agents' foes was pint-sized genius Doctor Loveless, played with great elan by "little person" actor Michael Dunn.

The first telefilm is marginally better than the second in that it plays to fans' history with the series. Since Michael Dunn had passed on, West and Gordon-- retired from the Service but brought back for "one last job"-- learn that the original Loveless has died but left behind two adult children, Miguelito Jr. (the short-but-not-that-short Paul Williams) and Carmelita (Jo Ann Harris). Miguelito has inherited his daddy's talent for producing weapons far beyond the science of the time, but there's no great imagination here: the writers simply have him invent the atomic bomb fifty years early. (Even a coda at the end of the movie comments on how ridiculous this is.) On the positive side, the script does give actors Conrad and Martin some clever lines about how much they've aged, and how hard it is to keep the pulp-action going, whether it consists of romancing young ladies or trashing cyborgs. Mime artists Shields and Yarnell play the cyborgs: Loveless calls the male one his "six hundred dollar man."




Though REVISITED only satisfies low expectations, it does that better than the single sequel, MORE WILD WILD WEST. One might have thought that it would be as good as the first one, given that it must've been put together by the same contingent of producers. Instead, MORE is a talky bore, in which West and Gordon are drafted once more to thwart the designs of another mad scientist, played clownishly by Jonathan Winters. Only one actor in this bore acquits himself well: Victor Buono, who played an arch-villain on the series, does an amusing imitation of Henry Kissinger, given the unsubtle name of "Doctor Messenger."

One other item of interest: in REVISITED, West gets embarrassed when he thinks a much younger woman is coming on to him, only to find out that she's the grown daughter of an old flame, who thinks of him as an uncle. However, all such limitations of old age are forgotten in MORE, when West has to seduce a much younger woman-- one of two twins-- to get information from her, and the film ends with both agents getting a twin apiece-- who are, of course, virtually interchangeable, like the plot of this telefilm with that of other reunion-pieces.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

BRICK BRADFORD (1947), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1951)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological*


I bracketed these two serials together because (1) both stem from the years that producer Sam Katzman helmed Columbia's serial production, (2) both are adaptations from other media, and (3) both are what I call "running around, fighting, getting nowhere fast" serials.

Although most serials of the sound era had considerable budgetary limitations, most of those produced under Katzman don't really try to conceal said limitations. Where a serial like 1937's DICK TRACY gives viewers the impression of seeing the hero jaunting around to many locales in search of crimes to stop, many of Katzman's serials seem to keep the principals confined to one or two locales. Thus. no matter how much fighting and running around the heroes and their opponents may perform, a sense of inertia, of not getting anywhere, inevitably sets in.

The BRICK BRADFORD comic strip began in 1933, focusing at first on aviation adventures, and then putting increasing emphasis on fantasy-exploits like those of 1929's smash success BUCK ROGERS. (The appearance of 1934's FLASH GORDON may have had some effect as well.) In 1935 the heroic Brick began having adventures in other temporal eras thanks to his "Time Top" (seen above), and in his few later incarnations he's probably best known as a time-traveler.

The 1947 serial, however, doesn't have a consistent idea of what it wants to do with Brick, and it's been said that each of the three credited writers did separate parts of the continuity without much reference to one another. Brick, like many serial-heroes, finds himself trying to prevent a radical new weapon (another death-ray) from falling into the hands of evildoers, this time both Earthly spies and agents of a civilization on the Moon-- technically not "aliens," since it's briefly established that the humans there emigrated from Earth long ago, under vague circumstances.

For me, the section dealing with the Moon-action was the most enjoyable. Despite being a dimestore version of the FLASH GORDON serial, there's at least some attention to the exotic appeal of FLASH in some of the Moon's weird decor, in the glowing "Crystal Door" that transports the Earthmen to the lunar surface (where of course they can breathe quite easily), and in the nasty queen of the Moon, Khana (Carol Forman). There's even a little Dale-Aura conflict as Khana sets her sights on handsome Brick (Kane Richmond), much to the displeasure of the standard Earth-scientist's daughter June (Linda Leighton).

Aside from these sequences, the rest of the serial is just a lot of incomprehensible running around and fighting, whether it takes place in modern times or in another era, thanks to the Time Top. There are occasional moments of humor, but not an intolerable comedy relief this time, and the conclusion actually emphasizes a romantic moment between Brick and June.




I have not read Jules Verne's MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, but from all accounts it's barely a metaphenomenal book at all. Several castaways become stranded on an island and must deal with issues of survival, though they get help from a mystery benefactor who turns out to be none other than Captain Nemo, who alone survived the wreck of the Nautilus in 20,000 LEAGUES, along with his fantastic submarine.

The first episode of 1951's MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is allegedly true to the book, which takes place during America's Civil War. The aforementioned castaways, all Northern officers or sympathizers, escape captivity in the South by stealing an observation balloon, but become stranded on an island. The main hero Captain Harding (Richard Crane) is given a touch more humanity at the outset than most serial-heroes, though it doesn't help once the action starts, for said action once again consists of-- lots of fighting and running around, this time in a locale which cannot be varied. As if to make up for this static situation, the scriptwriters have the five castaways menaced by no less than three separate menaces. The most mundane menace is a gang of 19th-century pirates, and technically the island's inhabitants are mundane in that they belong to some island-dwelling Earth-tribe, though the serial dresses them up in outer-space-looking garments. In contrast, the last menace-- actual aliens from the planet Mercury-- are rather mundanely outfitted, as the above photo shows. The Mercurian leader, one Rulu, is acceptably "alien" in her attire, but her minions are dressed in knockoffs derived from the look of Columbia's SPIDER'S WEB serial, right down to that hero's spider-webbed mask. I note in passing the accidental resemblance of the serial's first chapter to the title of a 1965 teleseries, but there's no truth in ISLAND's advertising. No one goes into space in the course of the serial, though we do see the Mercurian ship-- which is just a refurbished BRICK BRADFORD "time top"-- land on the island.



The various motivations of the three separate menaces are dodgy at best, while the castaways have no motivation beyond immediate survival. The fistfights are pretty good, and though Rulu is no Khana, she at least has a few magisterial moments, conquering the will of her opponents with a thought-control wand. Of Harding's four companions, the three white guys are largely interchangeable. The one black character, Ned (Bernie Hamilton), doesn't get a lot of characterization, but in contrast to the roles given black people in most serials, he's treated respectfully and is shown to be a handy guy in a fight. Given that Verne did a horrible "idiot Negro" in ROBUR THE CONQUEROR, I suspect that this may be one thing that this goofy serial improved upon-- though I'm in no hurry to read the book and find out.


Monday, March 20, 2017

TO DIE FOR (1988), SON OF DARKNESS: TO DIE FOR 2 (1991)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


I only rewatched these two low-budget vampire flicks because I remembered that both ended with vampire-on-vampire battles. Thus I wanted to know whether or not these fights qualified them for the mode of the combative. I satisfied myself that they do, though there wasn't much else of interest.

TO DIE FOR is definitely the better of the two films. Despite the budgetary limitations, director Deran Sarafian gives Lesley King's script a glossy erotic flair, as modern vampire Vlad Tepisch-- who is apparently yet another version of Dracula, without using the name-- seeks to set up new digs in the Hollywood Hills. To do this Vlad needs a real estate agent, and he just happens to meet a toothsome one in young Kate Wooten. Kate, like so many vampire-victims before her, just happens to be dissatisfied with her current boyfriend. Yet, though there's any immediate erotic charge between Kate and Vlad when they meet, Kate doesn't succumb right away, making her the "Mina" of the story. So Vlad seduces her friend, who becomes the ill-fated "Lucy." Vlad, as played by Brendan Hughes, manages to remain relatively sympathetic despite his acts, partly because his vampire brother Tom (Steve Bond) has followed Vlad and shows himself to be much worse. Tom (they couldn't have found a more Romanian name?) bears a grudge against Vlad, who vampirized Tom's former girlfriend. Now Tom is out to get revenge by killing or vamp-kissing Kate. It's pretty predictable but is helped somewhat by good visuals and strong acting from Hughes and Bond.



Not so the second incarnation. Despite being scripted by the same person, SON OF DARKNESS is unbearably tedious. It sets forth a premise with good potential. At some unspecified time, Vlad-- now played by a lackluster Michael Praed-- lay with and conceived a child by a mortal woman. By chance Vlad-- who somehow escapes his death from the first film and becomes a medical doctor at a bloodbank (har har)-- meets both the infant child and his adoptive mother. Tom survives his death too and does everything he can to make Vlad's life miserable-- except that the script does his job for him. Director David Price probably didn't have much to work with, as the script wanders about with no sense of dramatic development or backstory-- but the only decent part of the story is the final fight, which is at least livelier than the one from the first film.

Still, nothing much to recommend about either one, unless one just has a jones for vampire erotica.

MARVEL'S IRON FIST: EPISODES 1-5 (2017)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


I've sometimes devoted one review to an entire television series, as with the 1990s Superman cartoon, and sometimes to a smattering of episodes in separate reviews, as I did with my incomplete survey of the KUNG FU teleseries.  This falls into the latter category, as I've only watched the first five of the thirteen episodes, which is about the same number of episodes that the "pro" critics watched before widely trashing it in online media.

One common complaint voiced concerned the level of action in the series. It's true that there's nothing here that even equals the better Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, much less the classic Hong Kong kung fu flicks, Yet the slow pace of IRON FIST is echoed in earlier Netflix online serials like DAREDEVIL and LUKE CAGE, and in all likelihood said pace is mostly a matter of economics, not lack of talent. The FIST fight-scenes are adequate, but the overall strategy of the show's producers is to draw viewers into the emotional world of Danny "Iron Fist" Rand. If they succeed in making you care about Danny as a character, then in theory you'll be more invested in his welfare than whether or not his battle with a gang of hatchet-wielding Triad gangsters comes up to the level of a Jet Li flick.

It's not by accident that I worked in a reference to the 1970s series KUNG FU, for the earlier series parallels some if not all of IRON FIST's direction. Both serials emphasize action enough to qualify for the mythos of adventure, but both also incorporate strong dramatic elements into the mix. Admittedly KUNG FU is superior to IRON FIST in both content and visual style. That said, the earlier series focused more on the main character Caine helping out "guest star" characters during the hero's peripatetic journeys, while Danny Rand is grounded in New York as part of his dramatic arc.

Rand's situation in a nutshell: fifteen years ago he-- a child of ten-- was lost in an airplane crash over the Himalayas, as were his wealthy parents. At age 25 he shows up in New York, seeking to connect with the Rand Corporation. the only link he has with his past. In the absence of the Rand family, the Meachams, the grown son and daughter of the elder Rand's partner, have assumed control of the company. Danny can't initially prove who he is and the Meachums don't initially want to listen to his story: that he was rescued from a freezing death by the monks of K'un-Lun. The explanation for his long absence-- that these monks inhabit a Brigadoon-like city that only intersects with the Earth-plane on rare occasions, and that Danny simply couldn't get back-- does not go over well.

While the dramatic resolution of Danny's identity problems might have been tighter, I found it interesting that the producers chose to resolve them gradually, given that the more common resolution in pop fiction is to have the doubters convinced immediately by some supernormal demonstration.  Though the leisurely pace is probably born of an economic need, the producers made the best of the situation, allowing the involved heritage of the partners and their children to unfold in a naturalistic manner.

It's been said online that star Finn Jones plays Danny Rand as a "ten year old in a man's body." This is inaccurate. Danny Rand's struggle in the series during the first five episodes is that of a grown man attempting to re-connect with the memories of his childhood, now layered over with the experiences he's had in the past fifteen years-- experiences that include not just living in a culture very unlike that of his birth, but also one in which things like dragons and disappearing cities are commonplace. In addition, because other Marvel serials have introduced Frank Miller's evil ninja-clan "The Hand," this group now becomes an opponent for Iron Fist, whose original comics-incarnation predates Miller's DAREDEVIL run. In emulation of the gritty, down-to-earth approach in Netflix's DAREDEVIL series, marvelous powers and creatures don't show up in the streets of IRON FIST's New York quite as often as they do in the Marvel Comics New York-- which adds to the tension, in which Danny Rand's story is simply not creditable in real-world terms, despite the fact that the Avengers and their ilk exist off on the margins of the Netflix universe.

I've already expressed my feelings on the matter of so-called cultural appropriation in this essay, but I should add that some of the aforesaid reviews apparently thought it was cool to fight racism with racism, as seen in this nearly incoherent piece from COMIC BOOK MOVIE:

The current MCU is very white. Danny Rand is a pretty lame character to begin with. Having him be an asian would have brought an actually interesting aspect to his character, especially as a fish out of water to a mystic asian culture. Instead we get some boring white guy about to do some more typical white guy stuff. 


Now, if I were to say that all black guys were inherently boring, or all Asian guys-- who would fail to label that racism? But generalizing about Caucasian characters gets an automatic pass from ultraliberal types-- not to mention the reviewer's reverse-racist conviction that not being white automatically makes a character "interesting."

Neither in any comics-incarnation nor in this series is Danny Rand likely to set any records for "greatest white character." But whatever shortcomings the character may have certainly do not depend on his race.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

D.E.B.S. (2004)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


I'll get the metaphenomenality question out the way first: the only thing that makes this film "marvelous" is that in one scene the soon-to-be-reformed villainess steps up to a big-ass, somewhat phallic cannon and claims that she's going to annihilate Australia. The gun is never activated, but her henchman seems to believe it will work. There's also a moment where some of the titular heroines are trapped in a chamber where a spiked ceiling is lowering itself down upon them, though technically this could fall into the "uncanny" phenomenality-- much like the outfits worn by the D.E.B.S., which look like faux "Catholic schoolgirl" uniforms.

I'm not sure why the DEBS (I got tired of typing the periods) bother with these outfits. Their alma mater is an American spy school where presumably everyone knows that they're not ordinary students. Of course the non-diegetic reason is that main character Amy (Sara Foster) and her three DEBS colleagues look really hot in their outfits, and not only to that evil "male gaze." DEBS (the movie) started out as an 11-minute short that toured various festivals, including at least one that focused on gay/lesbian film-making, and it is, despite its apparent similarity to spy spoofs, primarily a lesbian rom-com in which the spy-junk is incidental to the unison of Amy with her opposite number (and other main character), international arch-villain Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster).

Lucy is in truth not the villain of the story, even though she has the usual Blofeld-ian lair full of intricate devices and even though she's on a "most wanted" list for international criminals (the audience is led to believe that she's simply overcompensating for never having found True Love). While Lucy is a lesbian when the film starts, Amy has not yet realized her true erotic calling, though she's just broken up a hetero relationship-- making her, so to speak, ripe for conversion. Lucy and Amy have a "meet-cute" in spy-movie terms-- they confront each other with drawn guns-- but Lucy distracts the less polished DEBS agent with her charms and slips away. However, Lucy continues to court Amy, who is conflicted less by changing her gender-focus than by betraying the ideals of the DEBS agency by consorting with a criminal. Lucy promises to change her ways-- there's even a cartoonish scene in which Lucy gives back some of the money she's stolen from banks over the years-- and eventually the two hot girls hook up. One other DEBS member knows of their relationship, but the other two don't, making for a lot of comic-- though not particularly funny-- confusion.

So who's the villain of the story? Well, in a sense it's the DEBS agency, in that its members insist on obeying the law and bringing Lucy in for trial. rather than letting the two lovebirds fly away. The affair is revealed, but because the bosses of the agency don't want to be publicly embarrassed by Amy's fraternization (sororization?), they agree to sweep the incident under the rug. The other DEBS members are somewhat pissed at Amy for breaking her oath of office, and for hiding things from them. As part of the cover-up, Amy-- who is up for a "DEB of the Year" award-- must give a speech in which she tells of her harrowing captivity by Lucy Diamond. Lucy for her part is so desperate to see her lover that she infiltrates the ceremony. However, Amy can't denounce Lucy and publicly confesses their love affair to the audience. Lucy gets the only combat of the climax-- she gets to beat down her romantic rival Bobby-- and with the help of the other DEBS agents, Amy and Lucy escape, giving up both heroism and villainy for their love.

As mentioned earlier this is not a regular spy-spoof like SPY HARD:  the tropes of the superspy-genre could have been redone as cop/crook tropes with no real change in the plot or theme. DEBS is not even trying to be funny after the manner of other spoofs: its writer-director Angela Robinson was apparently more interested in projecting a droll attitude. She doesn't really have anything to say beyond the glorification of the film's amour fou, but I assigned this a "fair" rating because there's some sociological accuracy to portraying the superspy-fantasy as an excuse for erotic encounters. Also, silly though the film is, it does buck the tendency of commercial American films to validate the authority of government agencies. I feel like Robinson might have also said something about the social pressure that "girl-groups" exert on their members. but maybe that would be expecting too much from her.

COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970), THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical, psychological*


A great deal of Marxist-feminist ink has been spilled about the figure of the master vampire as the Freudian Big Daddy who monopolizes as many young women as he can for his undead harem. However, considerably less attention has been paid to the ways in which the master vampire is used, not just as a male fantasy of erotic supremacy, but also a female fantasy of erotic competition, in which one of the master’s many brides receives his special attention.

Such a competition is at least suggested in Stoker’s classic novel, in terms of two boon female friends, upper-class Lucy and lower-class Mina. Lucy, if not actually more sexually active than Mina, gives the impression of being more forthright, enough so that she has three suitors to Mina’s sole fiancée. Lucy is the first one Dracula vampirizes, but once he’s had her, he seems to leave her to her fate without much attention. In contrast, Mina is—thanks in part to her protection of the vampire-hunters—a “hard get.” She is vampirized, but resists the Count’s influence until he is destroyed. Thus there is an intimation sense that she enjoys erotic primacy in Dracula’s eyes, though perhaps not as overtly as one sees in straightforward romantic versions like 1991’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA.

Writer-director Bob Kelljan’s two “Count Yorga” films are very much built around the idea of a vampire taking up harem-hunting in modern Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the first film, COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, is rather murky as to the vampire-lord’s motivations. He uses his knowledge of occult matters to become an adviser to a group of well-to-do citizens, which includes at least two females that Yorga wants to add to his seraglio. One member of the group is Errca, whom Yorga interrupts when she’s parking in the forest with her boyfriend. Though not a major character, she more or less fulfills the “Lucy” role, as her friends try to find the missing woman, with the help of a blood-specialist who just happens to believe in vampires. Another member of the group, Donna, is in essence the “Mina” of this roadshow Stoker-show, for she’s the one whom Yorga pursues for most of the narrative. In contrast, Yorga seems to pretty much forget about Erica once he’s ensconced her as one of his three vampire brides. In contrast to the three brides in Stoker’s novel, all three seem to be modern converts to vampirism. Erica is the only one named, a second is completely anonymous, and the third is revealed to be Donna’s unnamed mother, thought to have died of pernicious anemia. This may be the most intriguing psychological motif of Kelljan’s script, but he doesn’t do much with it. Did Yorga come across the mother, seduce her, and then decide that he liked the taste of her so much, he just had to go after the fruit of her loins? There might be a hint of a mother-daughter competition here, not unlike the one in SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. But Kelljan apparently didn’t know how to construct his psychodrama so as to give this motif the competitive edge that it has in Stoker’s novel. Interestingly, since Yorga is like Dracula more than a century old—Yorga’s the only one seen to turn to dust—both mother and daughter are equally “daughters” in his family romance.

Frankly, the competition angle of COUNT YORGA is the only thing that saves the film. Kelljan’s script and direction are both weak, and I suspect that the main thing that made the movie successful in its time was the novelty of placing an old-school vampire in the world of hip L.A.




RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, though, is a huge improvement, though the competition-motif isn’t emphasized to the same extent.

The previous film ends with Yorga slain, though at least three of his vampire brides are alive. While it would have been easy to set up a scenario in which the brides pursued some course that would revive Yorga, Kelljan—this time, co-writing with Yvonne Wilder, who plays a deaf-mute character in the film—tosses aside continuity in favor of visual intensity.

Neither Donna, Yorga’s old erotic focus, nor any other character from COUNT is referenced here, though actor Roger Perry plays a new character in RETURN. Yorga’s new target is Cynthia (Mariette Hartley), who lives with her family in California and works at a children’s orphanage. Though later in the film we’ll learn that Cynthia is engaged to a young doctor, she seems strangely discontented as she stares fixedly into the sky and listens to the blowing of the notorious “Santa Ana” wind. After she talks a little with the priest who runs the orphanage, the camera cuts to the activities of one of a preteen orphan boy, playing out in the forest. He comes across three graves in the woods. For no obvious reason—though there’s a suggestion that the quixotic wind is exerting some supernatural effect—Yorga and two of his brides claw their way out of the ground. The boy becomes one of Yorga’s non-vampirized pawns, and although he’s not a major character, he’s the last character seen as the film closes:  suggesting the continued existence of evil masquerading as innocence.

Just as the wind seems to revive Yorga, it also seems to bring him tidings of Cynthia’s discontents. Certainly no other explanation is offered as to why, upon reviving, he somehow manages to purchase an estate neighboring the orphanage. In addition, he apparently does a  lot of recruiting, for by the time Cynthia does meet him—he attends a Halloween party at the orphanage—he’s got at least one non-vampire male henchman, whose sole purpose is to serve as “muscle,” and about five more vampire brides in addition to the two that un-buried themselves.

Like most vampiric targets, Cynthia is clearly fascinated with Yorga’s attentions, despite the fact that she’s engaged to a nice but dull modern fellow. The first film failed to speculate about Yorga’s reasons for pursuing Donna, but during the party, the vampire and his erotic prey have a fascinating tete-a-tete that suggests something about their subliminal relationship. Cynthia tells Yorga that she labors at the orphanage because she’s always sought some form of “purity” in life. Yorga, who naturally has no interest in such Christian values, reflects that he prefers “truth” over purity—though without mentioning that his truth is a literal perversion of the Christian ethos. Yet in a strange way Cynthia’s “purity” and Yorga’s “truth” seem to complement one another, though nowhere else in the film does the script wax philosophical in this manner.

The rest of the film from then on is a rousing thriller. Because Cynthia has a family who gives her support, the ruthless Yorga stages a home invasion, sending his harem to attack Cynthia’s house. The brides slay Cynthia’s mother, father, and sister. However, sister Ellen appears later as a vampire. Ellen, while not a major character, may be viewed as the “Lucy” of the story: she is a doublet of Cynthia, right down to having a dull fiancée, and her only major scene after being killed is to approach her fiancée and slay him. Perhaps Ellen is doing to her dull boyfriend what Cynthia might subconsciously like to do to her own.

Once the family is dead, Yorga uses his mental powers to obscure Cynthia's’a memory of the traumatizing event, and uses the family’s absence as an excuse to invite Cynthia to his estate. However, Yorga is anything but subtle, despite a few scenes in which he tries to seduce her through his charm alone. Thus Cynthia soon learns that she’s a prisoner in a mansion full of cackling vampires. The two male fiancées gain the aid of two reluctant cops and investigate the mansion, which leads to multiple blood-lettings. Despite having ample chances to vampirize Cynthia, Yorga does not do so, though he does put her under his mental thrall. At the conclusion, Cynthia rebels against her “demon lover,” after which her fiancée hurls him out the window. But like many early 1970s flicks, the evil of Yorga lives on, and the film ends with Cynthia about to get fanged, mirroring a comparable scene in COUNT.

RETURN is much more satisfying than COUNT. Whereas lead actor Robert Quarry seems somewhat affected in his role in the first film, in the second he epitomizes the courtly European par excellence. A rude woman, mistaking Yorga for a Halloween reveler, asks, “Where are your fangs,” and he responds, “Where are your manners?” In a pleasing scene that verges on burlesque, Yorga is seen at his manse, staring without expression at a Spanish-language broadcast of Hammer Films’ 1970 opus THE VAMPIRE LOVERS. These and similar moments suggest that Kelljan took a “catch as catch can” approach to vampire mythology. On one hand, it’s a given that Yorga cannot withstand the Christian cross, irrespective of whether the wielder believes in the faith or not. Yet, though the vampire brides are unharmed by the cops’ bullets, Yorga himself is wounded by a metal axe in the chest. Still, though Cynthia is a “Mina” who doesn’t have much of a “Lucy,” she does conform to the general pattern of the female who is fascinated with the unknown but fights to the bitter end to avoid being suborned by it. The fact that neither Donna nor Cynthia triumph as Mina does merely suggests that Bob Kelljan was not nearly as devoted to the theme of erotic primacy as was Bram Stoker.