Saturday, March 5, 2011

Wendigo Meets BLOOD OF DRACULA (1957)

The question we had going into this film by producer Herman Cohen and director Herbert L. Strock, the team that gave us I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, was: why isn't this one called I Was a Teenage Vampire or, if you prefer, I Was a Teenage Dracula? The answer, apparently, has to do with the fact that Blood of Dracula was released on a double bill with Teenage Frankenstein in November 1957. It would look pretty absurd to have two "I Was a Teenage..." movies on the same program, but that means that Blood goes through history as the poor stepchild of the "Teenage" trilogy (Werewolf, Frankenstein and How to Make a Monster). Is that fair? Well, some of you may recall that Wendigo included Blood of Dracula in his list of ten worst vampire movies, but he reminds us that that was really a list of the movies with the ten worst cinematic vampires, not necessarily the ten worst movies that happened to have vampires in them. So while the Strock film has one strike against it going in, it might yet have redeeming qualities. Since AMC ran it one night last week, Wendigo decided that we should give the thing another chance.

What we found was a story so totally stacked against its putative heroine that the unfairness of it all was almost offensive. Blood of Dracula is the sad story of Nancy Perkins (Sandra Harrison), a teenage girl whose father has remarried within mere weeks of her mother's death. Dad celebrates his honeymoon with his new trophy wife by dumping Nancy at a boarding school. She is a bit of a killjoy, we must admit, sulking and not even bothering to conceal her contempt for her father and her hatred for her new mom. No matter, though: we'll never see them again. Nancy becomes a virtual orphan in a virtual orphanage dominated by the "Birds of Paradise," a clique of mean girls who instantly ransack Nancy's stuff. The noise rouses the school staff, but Nancy observes the omerta of adolescence, refusing to rat out anyone and taking a small step toward acceptance.

Nancy falls under the influence of her chemistry teacher, Miss Branding (Louise Lewis), one of this era's rare female mad scientists. Along with the usual madness, Branding has a feminist axe to grind. She thinks it's only because she's a woman that the scientific community has rejected her thesis that a destructive potential can be tapped in human beings that would make atomic power look paltry. It's also only because she's a woman, we must suppose, that they reject the idea that a demonstration of this destructive potential would scarify the nations into nuclear disarmament. Perhaps a fait accompli will wake them up from their sexist stupor. Aided by her loyal classroom assistant Myra, Branding stages an accidental sulfuric acid spill in order to recruit Nancy as her test subject.

Will Nancy become an atomic superwoman who'll rule the world? Thankfully, perhaps, Branding thinks a more modest demonstration will make her point to the world. The science of it consists of hypnosis, aided by an amulet acquired in the notorious Carpathian Mountains. The scientific properties of the amulet remain a mystery, but using it, Branding can induce a post-hypnotic transformation proving her thesis of human destructive potential -- but not before three overaged guys, including the house groundskeeper and resident boy-toy, crash a dorm party and stage a musical number while Tab (singer Jerry Blaine in his second Strock movie and final film appearance) performs the deservedly less well-known version of "Puppy Love." There's choreography and everything -- presumably spontaneous but somehow not seeming that way. It stops the film dead, and it never comes fully back to life -- not that it had been fully alive beforehand, though.

"Puppy Love" only delays the long-awaited first transformation, which occurs while Nancy skulks in a supply closet in the basement while a classmate grabs lab supplies for the next day. Wendigo finds the vampire girl an odd-looking thing. Her hair's styled so that she has an almost flat head, with bushy eyebrows arching toward her temples. She has pointy ears, pronounced raccoon eyes and gnarly oversized fangs that extend below her lower lip. It remains one of the worst vampire makeups Wendigo has ever seen, because there's no way this creature can be seductive the way a female vampire is supposed to be. Instead, she's just a female version of Michael Landon's Teenage Werewolf, a snarling subhuman monster. Maybe that's what Cohen and Strock thought a modern vampire would be like. Blood of Dracula was part of the short-lived trend of modern-vampire films that emerged in the U.S. in the late Fifties before Hammer's films re-established the dominance of Gothic tropes. It also helps explain why the trend was short-lived. Nancy has no demon-lover potential at all, nothing with which to capture our imaginations.

What all of this has to do with Dracula remains nebulous. As with The Return of Dracula, filmmakers felt comfortable using the D-word in their titles, but less so about invoking the D-man in their stories. Here, it seems as if writer Aben Kandel (alias Robert Thornton) was given a quota of name-dropping. He introduces a young police detective who happened to have a college roommate who came from the Carpathian Mountains and is therefore familiar with "the vampires, the Draculas" who terrorized that part of the world. The condition of the boarding-school killer's victims seems all too familiar to him. "The killer, the sickness, the victims, just as he described it to me," he tells his colleagues, "as if it were true...and Dracula." Wendigo and I just adore that tacked-on "Dracula." It's a perfect exploitation moment, and you can make a game of it, too. Listen to any line later in the picture and decide for yourself if it'll be enhanced by adding, "...and Dracula." You'd be surprised.

But of course, no modern policeman is going to listen to this greenhorn's dissertation on Carpathian folklore. The investigators have their own theory about the crimes: "It's definitely the work of a paranoid, somebody with a compulsion neurosis to kill," an expert concludes. Maybe it's because they fail to recognize the killings' basis in cutting-edge hypnotic science that Miss Branding has Nancy keep killing, even as the girl begins to realize that something's terribly wrong with her. A final test of wills is inevitable, a clash between mad science and its monstrous byproduct, with the life of Nancy's boyfriend at stake, and a sort-of stake conveniently placed in the middle of everything. But what's the point of it all?...

On one level, the film has the usual mad-science moral. "There is a power greater than science that makes the earth," a teacher tells Branding's assistant, "and those who twist and pervert knowledge for evil only work out their own destruction." True enough, but what had Nancy done to deserve what befalls her in this picture? She starts out miserable and wretched and ends up more miserable and more wretched. Does deserve have anything to do with it? Not really. Cohen and Strock seem to have an idea that Nancy was a consistent victim of a poor upbringing, tossed from the frying pan of a neglectful family into the fire of a manipulative, corrupting environment of the boarding school. A character gets to make a little speech decrying the use of such schools as a dumping ground for unwanted teenage daughters. The dumping is doubly bad because it confirms parental neglect and because it gives suspicious educated females too much influence over impressionable girls. You have to reach for it because there's no gay vibe of any kind in the picture, but you probably could argue that Branding's hypnosis and experimentation on Nancy symbolize something more salacious that couldn't be shown more explicitly in a Fifties B-movie four years before William Wyler's The Children's Hour broached the taboo subject of lesbianism. Wendigo would rather dismiss the screenplay as the work of a writer who shows no empathy whatsoever with the experiences of a troubled teenaged girl. You could have told the same story with an all-male cast, he suspects -- not that it would have been any better.

Whatever the subtext, Wendigo found the film as lame as ever, uninspired on every artistic level, and perhaps more lame for making so little use of a promising setting for a vampire picture. If fails almost completely as a vampire film because it has so little of what makes a vampire interesting. There's nothing wrong with making a vampire no more than a snarling monster (see Dan Curtis's The Night Stalker, for instance), but somehow when it's a female vampire it seems like a waste. Wendigo suggests that Nancy may be cinema's worst female vampire -- and I'm in no position to argue with him.

In lieu of our usual number of screencaps, here's the trailer for Blood of Dracula, uploaded to YouTube by TrashTrailers.

1 comment:

Oberon said...

I like this movie quite a bit, though I agree with many of your points. What I think is interesting, is it for shadows Buffy in a way: School-age young people, with possible metaphors. The make-up, though crude and/or unrealistic for vampires, at that time, also reminds me of how Buffy-vampires "vamp-out" with the exaggerated brows and other features.

So to me, I have my own backstory; the school campus was near Sunnydale or that area. The amulet was actually stolen from someone who was trying to bring it to Sunnydale, where The Master had long been imprisoned beneath the ground. Perhaps he wanted it's power to free him. One of his agents, Darla, was on the prowl (several blonds in the movie) searching for it, almost finding it, but Dr. Branding used it on poor Nancy and it causes an actual Buffy-vamp-like transformation.
Years later when we see the first Buffy episode, Darla is attired as a school girl - a trick she learned from hanging around the Sherwood campus?
Since the amulet is "lost", possibly just buried with Nancy's body, it never gets into the Master's hands. Of course, I have my own sequel in mind, that actually ties Blood/Dracula to the Buffy storyline.