Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Wendigo Meets THE VAMPIRE HAPPENING (1971)

Wendigo and I knew we were taking our chances with another vampire comedy, but I'd spent some hard-earned money ($6.99 plus tax) on Mill Creek's Undead box set and was determined that we see those films in it that we'd never seen before. That brought us inevitably to this Anglo-German co-production directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis and featuring hard-luck Swedish starlet Pia Degermark, who was married to the producer. In Germany, its native land, it's known as Gebissen Wird Nur Nachts, which I translate loosely as "They Only Bite at Night." In Italy it's known as "A Half-Litre of Blood for Count Dracula." But the world over, this film is known as "a stinker."

Pia Degermark as Betty Williams (nee Elizabeth von Robenstein) and Baroness Clarimonde

The Vampire Happening happens to be a vampire sex comedy, and a farce in the bargain. So along with the usual lame vampire jokes and dire Anglo-German bawdiness we get mistaken identity gags as well. Degermark, the once-promising ingenue of Elvira Madigan, is tasked with a dual role. She plays Betty Williams, an American actress with unusually sharp fingernails who has inherited a castle in Transylvania. Apart from hair color, she's a dead-ringer for an infamous ancestor, the Baroness Clarimonde, who besides being a vampire kept a well-stocked torture chamber in her day. Joseph the caretaker claims that Clarimonde remains chained in her coffin, but would run amok anew if released. The thought of her decadent heritage inspires perverse fantasies in Betty's mind. She imagines herself as a leather-clad torturer, tormenting a gay male flight attendant who'd offended her just by existing, it seems, during the flight to Transylvania. She also imagines nude women stretched on the rack or hanging upside down from the ceiling. In a pedantic mood, Wendigo informed me that few if any castles had torture chambers; those so inclined just used any spare room for the purpose. I told him he wasn't getting into the spirit of the film, and he said that was the film's fault. I can't argue with that.

"Don't do that!" The gay flight attendant's protests are futile in Betty's dream, and the dangling woman below doesn't even bother protesting.

Would it surprise you to learn that Betty unchains Clarimonde's coffin so the vampire can stalk again? For the rest of the picture the two women will be mistaken for each other, mainly because Betty has a habit of wearing wigs that Clarimonde promptly adopts. The farce gets off to an awkward start, however, because we see Betty seducing Martin the comic seminarian with newly dark hair (she started blonde) before it's established that she's wearing a wig. The whole scene happens just so Martin can mistake the dark-haired Clarimonde for Betty, and so Clarimonde can turn him into a comical randy vampire. One thing this picture arguably has going for it is sacrilege: both Martin and his abbot, who spies with binoculars on the girls' school across the way, become vampires and enjoy themselves immensely thereafter.

Joachim Kemmer nearly steals the picture as the liberated vampire monk Martin. Whether the picture was worth stealing is another matter entirely.

People keep getting the two girls mixed up, including new boyfriend Mr. Larsen, who's such a stud that Clarimonde would rather screw than suck him. Even a pack of vampires who invite Clarimonde to the titular happening get the women mixed up, what with those damned wigs. Eventually it's up to Clarimonde to bail Betty out of a dangerous situation, since family ties are stronger than vampire loyalty, but the thing we noticed in this crucial scene when the two faces of Pia Degermark meet for the first and only time was that director Francis couldn't even come up with a proper double-exposure payoff to all the confusion.

The Vampire Happening house band warms up the crowd before Count Dracula arrives in ultra-modern fashion, to as warm a reception as vampires can offer. Actual dialogue: "Let's play!"

As far as Wendigo is concerned, Vampire Happening bombed in the same way all vampire comedies bomb. It went for all the most obvious gags, always looking for the cheap laughs, and on top of that went for all the most obvious sex gags. If anything, though, he thinks it came closer to working as a sex comedy (thanks to ample female nudity) than as a vampire comedy. He thinks that a serviceable vampire farce could have been salvaged from this train wreck, but that the actual film was sabotaged by a complete failure of comic timing by everyone involved. You can't have a farce and still take the throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks attitude of this movie. Comedy is harder than many comedy filmmakers think, and vampire comedy filmmakers are usually amateurs at the game, with predictable results. You see them in stupid scenes, like all the times when Joseph the caretaker or Mr. Larsen have chances to stake Clarimonde but won't, or when Clarimonde stuffs herself in the trunk of a car to be taken to the Happening -- how did she get there in the past, Wendigo wonders, and why does she let Betty put herself in harm's way if she's as concerned for her safety as she claims to be later? Betty's characterization is also inconsistent. She starts out a depraved seductress (or a cruel tease) but ends up apparently chucking her Hollywood career for home life in a dank castle while leaving stardom to her vampire lookalike. Maybe some of her motivation is lost in translation, but we suspect that it's missing in any language.

Worst vampire hunters ever? Ivor Murillo and Robert Hunter fail again.

Worse, The Vampire Happening looks like the sort of film that was dated as soon as it was made. Though a Seventies film, it struck Wendigo as an obsolete product of a Sixties mindset. Even the erotic elements felt quaint to him; a Seventies film at least should have had full-frontal nudity. Speaking for myself, the film is weighed down by now hopelessly dated gags. At the Happening, a vampire is dressed as a Chinese Communist and repels another vampire by shoving a copy of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book in his mouth. When Count Dracula descends from his helicopter (?), escorted by American gangsters (??), he's greeted by Rosemary's Baby (???), a little girl who bites his finger (????). Worse yet, there's a casual homophobia aimed at that flight attendant that's inconsistent (not to mention just plain mean) with frequent displays of lesbian vampirism (including random bits of nunsploitation). Maybe the filmmakers thought the lesbian stuff was obligatory. During the Happening, Martin tries to hit on a female vampire, only to be cut in on by another female. "Are you one, too?" he asks, having seen nearly as many as we have during the picture.

Wendigo and I argued a bit over the screencaps for this film. I was tempted to put up quite a few more because there were plenty of weird details that might appeal to movie fans with more eclectic or eccentric tastes -- and you know who you are, don't you? But Wendigo felt that I'd be making the film look far funnier or salacious than it actually is. I have to agree with that, because at 100 minutes this film really starts dragging after a while. The climactic Happening definitely goes on for too long, and for many viewers the movie will have worn out its welcome long before then. I'll content myself with a few hints that different tastes might get a different experience from The Vampire Happening than we did, but I wouldn't bet on it.

The R-rated trailer was uploaded to YouTube by minuitsang


dfordoom said...

That Italian poster for the film is amazingly bad!

Vampire comedies are definitely a problem. I can't really think of a good one.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Wow, this looks like a failure of MAMA DRACULA proportions!

You're spot-on with the difficulties of comedy in general, vampire comedies in particular, and the pitfalls those who don't understand those difficulties almost always fall into. "I Vant to Suck Your Blud!" hasn't been funny for decades, if it ever was, and sadly most of the jokes never get beyond that level of sophistication.

As to dfordoom's question about good vampire comedies, I struggle to think of one as well. I have an affection for Landis's INNOCENT BLOOD that probably has little to do with its actual comedy value, but I remember getting a few laughs out of the mobster vamps and their peculiar problems (i.e., garlic). Everyone loves THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, but it never worked for me, for some reason--maybe I should revisit.

How about DUCKULA? Or HEATHCLIFF AND DINGBAT? Do those count? I used to laugh at them till sugared cereal came out my nose. ;)

dfordoom said...

Vicar, Fearless Vampire Killers didn't work for me either. There's a reason Roman Polanski isn't renowned as a comedy director!

Samuel Wilson said...

d: I was amazed by the gall of that poster in proclaiming the film, "the funniest and most entertaining movie of the year!"

Vicar: I neglected to mention that characters occasionally listen to Radio Transylvania, where the announcers talk with exactly the sort of "bleh, bleh" accent you're talking about. This one actually has a gag stolen by Mama Dracula: a vampire taking air out of tires by biting them. Only in Happening the tires don't bleed. Wendigo is willing to say that Happening is actually worse than Mama, though not as awful as Dracula the Dirty Old Man. We might all be better off taking his word on that.

Gwen said...

I actually always liked this movie; I remember getting it from the video store in high school and watching it with friends. It's just goofy, dated, sleazy fun.

Samuel Wilson said...

Gwen: Happening can definitely be an entertaining experience if you and your viewing companions approach it with the right attitude. One person's failed humor can easily be someone else's hilarious camp. I'd never reproach anyone for enjoying a bad movie; if it helps you entertain yourselves, that's a good thing.

Mark Mageddon said...

I have been watching this movie every halloween for almost 20 years now