Monday, December 21, 2009

Wendigo Meets BLOOD SUCKERS (1970)

Also known as Incense for the Damned and Freedom Seeker, Robert Hartford-Davis's film is an adaptation of Simon Raven's novel Doctors Wear Scarlet. It concerns Richard Fountain, an Oxford professor of classics and wayward son of the British foreign secretary. His academic mentor, Walter Goodrich (Peter Cushing) sends Tony Seymour to Greece to investigate rumors that Richard, whom Walter wants to make his son-in-law, has fallen in with a bad crowd during a research trip. Accompanying Tony are Richard's best friend Bob and Walter's daughter Penelope, who have an odd rivalry for Richard's affections. In Greece, they hook up with British diplomat Maj. Longbow (Patrick Macnee). This foursome picks up the trail of a dubious entourage which Richard has joined, surrounding the mysterious Chriseis. Her troupe trips out regularly, indulges in orgiastic practises (so we're told) and kills the occasional person in fits of bloodthirsty frenzy.

On the island of Hydra they track Richard to a mountain fort and chase off Chriseis's crew. He is weak and prone to visions; he prophesies the death of one of the party, and as it happens Longbow falls from a cliff after an encounter with the returning Chriseis. Bob discovers Chriseis biting Richard's neck and apparently drinking his blood. He fights the evil woman and shoves her off the side of a staircase. The fall of about ten feet appears to kill her, but Bob believes she's a vampire and wants to stake her on the spot. Tony arrives after failing to save Longbow and won't let Bob do it; it would make a probable accident look too much like murder.

Instead, they and Penelope bring Richard back to Oxford, where Walter wants to announce Richard and Penelope's engagement after the young man makes a speech at an anniversary banquet for alumni. Richard ruins the occasion by turning his speech into a diatribe against academic tyrants whom he equates with blood suckers. As the hall erupts in a tumult, Richard drags Penelope away, apparently to consummate the relationship in advance. But after he hallucinates Chriseis in her place, Richard bites Penelope's neck. Bob finds him drinking her blood and chases him into the night and onto the loose-tiled roof, from which Richard falls to a death by impalement. After this, Tony is more open to Bob's suggestions, and the film closes with the men preparing to stake both Richard and Penelope.

"I command you!" Is Peter Cushing the real Blood Sucker?

So, Wendigo: Is this a vampire film or not?

It depends on your definition of a vampire movie. In the loosest sense, Wendigo says it's obviously one, but some may disagree if they insist on a supernatural aspect to vampirism. The objection isn't necessarily justified, as modern blood fetishism is thematically akin to traditional vampirism. Also, Chriseis is obviously a vamp in the 20th century sense of the term, i.e. an evil seductress, whether she's a supernatural creature or not.

Blood Suckers (pronounced "Blood Suckas" for the American market) isn't without supernatural bits. Richard's prophecy is one example. One more mysterious instance that may key into traditional vampire myth involves a medallion Richard wears that Chriseis rips from his neck before ravishing him during one of her gang's revels. What the medallion's about isn't clear, but she reacts as if it's a holy symbol that she needs to get out of the way. In the film, Bob speaks for a supernatural interpretation of events, suggesting that Richard is still in danger back in Britain because Chriseis hasn't been properly destroyed. While Tony eventually seems to agree with Bob, the film still leaves room for doubt. Tony had earlier spoken to a psychologist (the late Edward Woodward) who explains vampirism in terms of deviant sexuality ("Sadomasochism is no laughing matter," he says). Chriseis may just have been a kinky lunatic, and Richard's issues with father-figure Walter and needy friends suggest some kind of Freudian explanation for his nuttiness. Because Chriseis is never shown to have any of the vampire's supernatural powers, Wendigo believes that the film itself leans away from her being a true vampire. But the ending with the stakes shows that the filmmakers want to leave the question open. In a way, it's horror enough that rational men like Bob and Tony now believe in vampires, whether their belief is justified or not.

As a film, Blood Suckers takes a while to warm up. The opening scenes are choppily edited and the director doesn't seem very good at dialogue scenes throughout the film, but he finds his footing when he has a chance to show some action. A scene in which Penelope is chased through a Greek town by a gang led by an old woman bent on misguided vengeance, and finally rescued by Bob, is really well done. It takes advantage, as the film does throughout, of great locations in both Greece and Britain. But Hartford-Davis's ability to handle action is undermined by some really poor effects works in a couple of scenes. In one, Penelope has a wine-induced vision of Richard in ceremonial robes being crushed by falling rocks at an ancient temple. In another, Chriseis fends off a pursuing Longbow by setting off a mini-avalanche of rocks that nearly knock him off a cliff. In both cases, Wendigo was annoyed by the plain fakeness of the prop rocks, which look factory-made and give little illusion of weight. The fact that the fake rocks fall in front of a rear-projected Richard makes the effect even more lousy.

Blood Suckers: good locations, lousy special effects.

Wendigo has learned that Blood Suckers had a troubled production history, as maybe the multiple titles would tell you. That may be to blame for the choppy feel of many scenes, but the film ultimately gains enough momentum to remain compelling despite the off-putting narration by Tony. For the first third of the film we are told more than shown what's happening to Richard, and it hinders our involvement in the story. The acting, apart from Cushing, is weak, with Patrick Macnee looking alarmingly over the hill so soon after The Avengers and Johnny Sekka as Bob being given to ranting rather than acting. The other cast members are dull, especially our hero-narrator Tony. Still, if there were a surer hand behind the camera, Incense for the Damned would have been a much better film. The ambiguity of it appeals to Wendigo, but it isn't really something he can recommend to vampire cinema buffs.

* * *
Blood Suckers ended up being a sort of pleasant surprise after Wendigo sat through most of the supporting program on the Something Weird DVD. The feature itself looks pretty good, except for some terribly dark day-for-night scenes, and the picture actually looks well proportioned on his widescreen TV, compared to the full-frame images I get on my computer. But Something Weird DVDs are notorious for their extras, and extra obnoxious for Wendigo was a short subject entitled "The Horny Vampire." He thinks that calling this alleged comedy lame would be too generous. The direction would have to improve drastically to be poor, and the acting's on the sub-porno level.

It's about, well, a horny vampire, and its idea of a sight gag is the horny vampire crashing into a door and embedding both his fangs and his wang into the thing. The monster isn't turned by crosses because he's Jewish, but is ultimately repelled by a mysteriously materializing strap-on dildo stuffed into the panty hose of a woman who wasn't wearing any in the previous shot. As a rule, Wendigo believes that comedy and horror don't mix well, and comedy vampire films tend to be crap. While "The Horny Vampire" carefully minces around a pile of crap in the movie, in reality it falls in face-first. But if he feels this way about this mere short, what will Wendigo do when I run Dracula the Dirty Old Man for him? We'll find out sometime in 2010.
For now, here's the American trailer for Blood Suckers, uploaded to YouTube by SilentHillAsylum83:

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

I believe there are several different cuts of Blood Suckers in existence and I don't think any were approved by the director. So I'm prepared to make allowances for that choppy feeling that you mentioned. I think it's an interesting failure, but I'm rather fond of interesting failures, of movies that at least take a few risks and try something different.

And I think the ideas are intriguing enough to make it worth seeing.