Monday, December 14, 2009

Wendigo Meets IN SEARCH OF DRACULA (1974)

The 1970s were a kind of dark age for documentary films. As mondo movies went out of fashion, popular culture began to take on some of the shape it has today as enterprising filmmakers speculated on the existence of Bigfoot, ancient astronauts, antique conspiracies and the like. The "In Search of" prefix became a kind of genre label, often announcing a Sunn Classic Pictures release. Independent of this industry trend, Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally published In Search of Dracula to some acclaim and many sales. A cinematic version was inevitable, but I doubt whether the authors expected the adaptation to be released by Independent-International Pictures, the home of Al Adamson's Dracula vs. Frankenstein; directed by the maker of Terror of Frankenstein, Calvin Floyd; and on top of all this, or in spite of it, narrated by Christopher Lee.

My friend Wendigo had not seen In Search of Dracula in more than thirty years, dating back to its earliest cable broadcasts. He remembers being impressed by Christopher Lee being done up as Vlad Tepes, the putative inspiration for Bram Stoker's vampire, and liking some of the folkloric material filmed in historic Transylvania. Book and film alike stoked (no pun intended) his early interest in vampire folklore. So when he saw the film appear on DVD, he decided to get a copy. He read the book as a kid as well, but since then, he's become one of those dogged skeptics who reject the Florescu-McNally thesis that Stoker was inspired by, and meant to represent Vlad Tepes in print.

Wendigo thinks that Florescu and McNally never proved their case. In his opinion, the book is based mostly on supposition and circumstantial evidence. He says that there's no evidence that Stoker had ever heard of the historic Vlad Tepes ("the Impaler"), Vlad being unmentioned in the source materials Stoker acknowledged using. Nor did Stoker have any basis for thinking that Vlad was even believed to have become a vampire. For all we really know, "Dracula" was just a cool-sounding name and a more promising title for Stoker's villain than his first try, Count Wampyr. Wendigo speculates that it was a matter of family prestige for Florescu, allegedly a distant descendant of Vlad, to claim "Dracula" as an ancestor, while the Romanian tourist industry abetted him for obvious reasons.

So what? Wendigo believes that identifying Dracula as some sort of transcription of Vlad Tepes is an injustice to Bram Stoker, who creatively jumbled together a lot of folklore and a little history to craft his vampire legend and in the process invented an original character who has entered world folklore in his own right. Wendigo does not object in the least to subsequent works of fiction that appropriate Stoker's character and identify him with Vlad. But for scholars to claim that Stoker himself did this, when Vlad Tepes is never mentioned in the novel, irritates Wendigo's sense of history.

The Two Faces of Dracula; Hammer never thought of that one!

There is some ironic justice, then, in our discovery that Floyd's documentary is not a faithful adaptation of the book. For one thing, Florescu and McNally either steered clear of the project or were not consulted. It's very strange for them not to appear in the movie; why they didn't is unclear to me. Perhaps they were happy to take the money and run, but one might have expected more concern on their part that their thesis be represented accurately.

Instead we get something very close to a mondo film. It breaks down into four parts: 1. An illustrated synopsis of Stoker's novel, with Christopher Lee narrating and participating as a mustachioed Dracula in a wordless seduction scene, supplemented by stock footage from Hammer's Scars of Dracula; 2. a summary of vampire folklore, including a lot of local footage from picturesque Romania; 3. a biography of Vlad Tepes, with Lee donning a Vlad costume and parading wordlessly around some ruins for the sake of contrast; 4. and a history of the vampire genre from Polidori to Hammer, with some Frankenstein background thrown in along with in-house stock footage from Dracula vs Frankenstein.

At moments it seems as if Calvin Floyd and his writer-wife Yvonne aren't fully familiar with Stoker's novel, since they describe some of his vampire rules inaccurately. Stoker's vampires don't dissolve in daylight, as Lee claims on the Floyds' behalf. They also wrongly claim that Stoker's villain was out to create a world-conquering vampire army. The omission of some important characters from the synopsis suggests that the Floyds may not know that they existed in print, while they misdiagnose Renfield's mania as animal torture rather than animal eating. The film seems to be describing Dracula movies rather than the novel.

Mondo Dracula (above and below)

"Billy," a modern-day vampire. Funny, he doesn't look the part.

If anything, the film is even more baselessly assertive than the book. Not one expert is interviewed (unless you count reputed know-it-all Lee), yet sweeping claims are made. Most of the evidence presented is ethnographic, which doesn't exactly do anything to prove the Florescu thesis. Nor do case studies like the story of "Billy," a self-cutting vampire-wannabe who was the subject of a Sixties monograph. The recreation of the Billy story does take the film somewhere near Glen or Glenda territory, however. The local color includes some of the most entertaining parts of the movie, from Transylvanian ethnic dances and masked revels to the legend of Godiva-style vampire dowsing by a naked virgin on a horse.

Christopher Lee is the movie's main asset. Wendigo is still impressed by the actor in his Vlad getup, and would have liked to see Lee play the historical character. While Lee is only reading the Floyds' script, you can't help thinking that he should have known better on several points, or that had he done so, he might have insisted on rewrites. I found his on-screen scenes stilted, limited by the Floyds' inability to film, or his unwillingness to speak live dialogue for most of the movie. Still, he gives the movie a degree of class, if not credibility, that the project desperately needs.

Overall, Wendigo sadly has to give a thumbs-down to this once fondly though dimly remembered film. Apart from Lee's presence and some good accounts of the many ways you can become a vampire, he finds the movie unconvincing in its main argument, pointlessly digressive, and at times simply inadequate. It wants to discuss Bela Lugosi but can't even show us a clip from the old Realart Dracula trailer that everyone uses; instead it uses some admittedly interesting footage from a silent film in which he's a kind of mesmeric villain. Stock footage abounds, some of it understandable, but a lot of it simply branding this as a cheap film. In Search of Dracula ultimately devolves into a jumble of anecdotes that hardly justify your time or Wendigo's expense in acquiring the DVD. Its real value, I suppose, is as a footnote to Christopher Lee's career as Dracula. I don't know whether he's proud, disgusted or indifferent to his work here, but it isn't one of his finest hours.

Here's the trailer, uploaded to YouTube by iipAlAdamsonMania. The newspaper ad on top was uploaded by the great Temple of Schlock blog.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

What? You couldn't find an ad promoting the film closer to home, Sammy? Like, didn't "In Search of Dracula" play at the Hellman or something?

When one thinks of "In Search of..." nowadays, it's not the Sunn Classics line of documentaries, but the Alan Landsberg-produced series w/Leonard Nimoy that came along a year after "In Search of Dracula".

It sounds to me like the movie was produced on an egg noodle budget, which is a rung or two higher than a shoestring, if you get my drift. In other words, el cheapo, almost at an Ed Woodian level of incompetent. No wonder you can't find it on TV. No one wants to see it, it seems.