Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Back in Black

VAMPIRA (1974)

The cover to the MGM Limited Edition R1 DVD of VAMPIRA from 2011. Upon its theatrical release in the States, the production was re-christened OLD DRACULA by AIP, to cash in on Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

THIS Jeremy Lloyd-scripted travesty from World Film Services is not so much unfunny but downright insulting. Starting at Castle Dracula - now open to public tours - an aging Count (David Niven, fighting to keep his dignity) and his manservant Maltravers (Peter Bayliss) welcome a spooky photoshoot ("Most Biteable Playmate") from Playboy's London entourage, headed by Pottinger (Bernard Bresslaw). The Bunnies unwittingly give blood so the vampire can restore life to his beloved consort Vampira, who has been in a coma for fifty years after losing her immortality to an anaemic peasant. Finding the triple-O blood group to resurrect the Countess, the transfusion backfires as one of the models is black, a façade which Vampira adopts (as Teresa Graves). Hoping to reverse this mishap, The Count and Maltravers track down the girls in London, using Playboy feature writer Marc Williams (Nicky Henson) as their hypnotised pawn.

VAMPIRA mixes the British sex comedy with Hammer horror and Blaxploitation, but there is no flesh or blood on display. Now awakened, the titular character develops a bi-sexual lust, enjoying her environment and skin colour; not only does this new-found vigour mean her using phrases like "out of sight" and "jive turkey," she also goes to watch BLACK GUNN, dances lasciviously, and is now too energetic for the Count to handle. Unfortunately, this is undermined by a number of dismal dialogue choices, particularly when Maltravers tries to explain Vampira's change of appearance ("you don't think, Sir, the deep freeze wasn't working properly and she's - well - gorn orf?")

In the prolonged party sequence, Count Dracula and Maltravers attempt to swing well past the height of the Swinging London era.

More positively, the cast includes female luminaries Veronica Carlson and Penny Irving as Playboy Bunnies, Luan Peters as Pottinger's secretary, and MONTY PYTHON regular Carol Cleveland as a damsel in distress who is inexplicably helped by The Count. The standout however is Linda Hayden as Castle Dracula's disgruntled German student Helga. Although her Teutonic accent is as questionable as her Gallic attempts in CONFESSIONS FROM A HOLIDAY CAMP, Hayden excels in an almost cameo role, bitten and transformed into a white gowned, frizzy-haired succubus. Initially aiding the dinner guests, Helga is then ceremonially dispatched in an upright coffin in a macabre parody of THE GOLDEN SHOT. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mad Science


"He'll soon be neither human being nor plant, but with the characteristics and advantages of both: a plant that can move and think, a man who can set down roots." Donald Pleasence and Tom Baker plot and fester.

DIRECTED by Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff, THE MUTATIONS uses the template of Tod Browning's FREAKS and poverty row mad scientist pictures to mix with unsubtle 70's British sleaze and an avant-garde score. University Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence, in a role originally intended for Vincent Price) is experimenting to merge human and plant life. Any unsuccessful subjects are offloaded to Nolter's kidnapping accomplice Lynch (Tom Baker) for a nearby circus "Royal Family of Strange People," which Lynch runs with dwarf Burns (Michael Dunn). The human protagonists - all students from Nolter's class (Tony (Scott Anthony), Lauren (Jill Haworth) and Hedi (Julie Ege)) - and the circus freaks are exploited by the tyrannical Lynch, who hopes that Nolter will cure his own Elephant Man-type deformity. The plan starts to unravel when Tony, after being turned into a human Venus Fly Trap, escapes and ingests a homeless man. With Hedi strapped naked to the operating table, she is saved from Nolter's burning mansion by Dr Brian Redford (Brad Harris), and the freaks take their revenge on Lynch.

Like Browning, real deformed humans are cast for the roles (including Alligator Girl Esther Blackmon and the show-stopping Willie "Popeye" Ingram). Another Browning cue sees THE MUTATIONS lift its party scene directly from FREAKS, and Cardiff must also have been influenced by Universal's 1973 SSSSSSS, which sees herpetologist Dr Carl Stoner (Strother Martin) change young men into King Cobras, whereby botched attempts are exhibited at a circus. Both Nolter and Stoner theorise that humans now need to be in some transformative state, for Nolter to create a "world without hunger," and for Stoner to survive ecological disaster. A deadpan Pleasence mostly recites dialogue from his textbooks and provides an amusing lecture aside referencing genetically recreated dinosaurs, while at home he feeds rabbits to his creations. But Baker is the star: shortly before his Time Lord appointment - and sporting a coat hat and scarf ensemble - Lynch is the Igor to Pleasance's Frankenstein/Dr Moreau. Lynch himself is a freak, but his overpowering self loathing cannot make himself accept his plight; in the film's only touching scene, he visits a prostitute and begs her to say "I love you" for an extra pound.

Scott Anthony - mutated into a Venus Fly Trap - devours his  
monster maker Pleasence in the fiery climax.

The exhibition of real biological oddities can be traced back to the 1630's, when Lazarus Colloredo and his conjoined twin Joannes Baptista toured Europe. "Freaks of nature" as a source of entertainment on film adds another voyeuristic quality, freezing their façade awkwardly in time to watch over and over. FREAKS' original cut of January 1932 was met with disgust - one woman at a test screening threatened to sue stating it caused her miscarriage - and remains the only MGM release to have been pulled from circulation before completing its engagements. The picture was also banned in Britain for thirty years, and effectively brought Browning's career to a premature end. However, FREAKS has enjoyed a positive re-evaluation over the years, unlike Michael Winner's 1977 Universal opus THE SENTINEL, which controversially featured deformed humans as denizens from hell. Amid THE MUTATIONS relentless dour atmosphere, when Lynch is killed by flying switchblades then devoured by Nolter's hounds, the "Strange People" at least have a form of closure.