1972 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DRACULA A.D. 1972, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, AND THE THING WITH 2 HEADS

1972  is perhaps the most prolific year in the most prolific decade of horror and exploitation films. It’s also the year for what may be the quintessential midnight cult move: John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, now enshrined as one of the 366 weirdest movies of all time. Blood Freak, which is the first and only “Christian” movie to date about a turkey serial killer, is another Certified Weird 1972 exploitation picture. Competing with Freak fro sheer awfulness was Don Barton’s Zaat(AKA Blood Waters of Dr. Z), which went onto “MST3K” infamy.

In its Blu-ray presentation, Mario Bava’s maligned Baron Blood has proven better than its reputation, despite a miscast Joseph Cotten in the title role. Like most of Bava, it’s stylishly irresistible. The 1972 Amicus omnibuses Asylum and Tales From The Crypt both starred Peter Cushing, and were critical and box office successes. Ben, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and Beware The Blob were all inferior sequels—which is saying a lot in the case of an original monster who was just moving silly putty. Jess Franco tackled the two big undead kahunas (with plenty of added sex) in The Erotic Experiences of Frankenstein and Daughter of Dracula. The Count rose yet again in Count Dracula’s Great Love, starring Paul Naschy. Future King of Cartoons (William Marshall) and director William Crain fused horror with blacksploitation for the first time in Blacula. It was a enough of a box office success to warrant  (superior) sequel in 1973. Unfathomably busy, Cushing and Christopher Lee teamed up for Freddie Francis’ underrated Creeping Flesh, Gene Martin’s cult favorite Horror Express, Peter Sasdy’s misfire Nothing but the Night, and the Hammer opus Dracula AD 1972 (directed by Alan Gibson).

Widely scorned, Dracula A.D. 1972 reunited Cushing’s Van Helsing with Lee’s bloodsucker in a modern setting, even though Dracula himself is confined to a Gothic church. It’s one of  Tim Burton’s favorite movies. The contemporaneous critical backlash was mostly justified. Lee, probably the best cinematic Count, is reduced to second vampire-in-waiting. But as an artifact of its time, Dracula A.D. 1972 is not entirely without virtue, enough to explain Burton’s affection.

It opens in the previous century with Dracula and Van Helsing locked in mortal combat aboard a stagecoach, which crashes, causing the vampire to be impaled on the spokes of the coach’s wheel. As Dracula attempts to free himself, a battered and bleeding Van Helsing interferes, driving the spokes in deep enough to snuff out the life of his nemesis before dying himself. Witnessing the scene is a Dracula disciple who, of course, leaves with the vampire’s relics (handy for later resurrection). Despite the preposterous   accidental impalement, it’s a red-blooded, Gothic prologue that is followed by 1972’s swinging hippies.

Initially sounding more like old fuddy-duddy Edward Van Sloan than Peter Cushing, Lorimer Van Helsing, grandson of Abraham, lectures his granddaughter Jessica (Hammer babe Stephanie Beacham) all about the wrong crowd and premarital sex. Pooh-poohing gramps, Jessica heads straight for the wrong crowd, which includes bad seed Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame). His name, of course is a leftover gag from the 1943 Universal bomb Son of Dracula (starring a woefully miscast Lon Chaney, Jr.) Silly character name aside, Neame, once past the groovy scene (and pointless rock numbers) is creepily charismatic as the actual antagonist performing a Satanic ritual, during which he sacrifices Laura (Hammer babe #2 Caroline Munro) to resurrect the Prince Of Darkness. Throwing in a dash of pseudo-Satanism was no doubt influenced by the flood brought on by 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and seems an odd fit. Regardless, the ceremony is stylishly fleshed out in a ruined abbey.

The film then takes a sharp turn when focusing on the modern ruffian Alucard, who now takes over lead cruising-vampire role to exact revenge on the Van Helsing bloodline, while Dracula hangs out in the church, a symbol with little to do. It’s an old dilemma when a major character has so much baggage attached to him (or her) that filmmakers are afraid to take risks and have to create a second, more elastic character to have fun with (e.g., “naughty” Donald Duck being created to contrast with the stiff Mickey Mouse). Scotland Yard calls in expert Van Helsing for help, after bodies start piling up (imagine that). Cushing’s energizer bunny finally kicks in for a duel to the death with a turtlenecked bloodsucker and a bathtub, although the second accidental dispatch might tempt one to dismiss the film as Gothic slapstick or, perhaps, a precursor to Fright Night (1985).

Confined to his safe Gothic setting, Lee’s Dracula disappointingly never actually sees 1972, but he does get to engage in a spirited showdown with Cushing’s Van Helsing fourteen years after their last go at it.

The mod dialogue and slang in the early party scene is unbearable, embarrassingly dating the film. Curiously, much criticism was also leveled against Michael Vicker’s horn score, which is so idiosyncratic that it aids the film. An attempt is made to offset the flaws with three stylish action sequences, an older but still-animated Cushing and Lee, newcomer Neame as a coffee-house vampire, and of course, dual Hammer sex symbols Beacham and Munro. It all adds up to the most bipolar of the Hammer Dracula series, at least until the same team returned for the even queerer 1973 followup The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

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DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: THE FILMS OF DAINA KRUMINS

THE DIVINE MIRACLE (1972, DAINA KRUMINS)

During one of my incognito Sacred Heart Catholic Church field trips with my Aunt Greta, visiting from the Arizona desert, I received a mild scolding—albeit not from immediate family, who would have flipped out had they known my father’s sister had smuggled me into one of those Catholic churches. Rather, it was from Greta herself, who corrected my venial sin: in being transfixed by the statues of the Infant of Prague (a toddler Jesus in drag), Our Lady of Sorrows (Mother Mary with seven knives jabbed into her chest), and Teresa of Avila (she of Lorenzo Bernini’s orgasmic ecstasy), I made the mistake of saying: “It’s cool that your church has such weird imagery, worships women, and you don’t have to worship Jesus.” Greta very quickly and sternly pointed out to me: “We do worship Jesus, and we don’t worship Mary or Teresa. We venerate them.” In hindsight, and putting aside that I was in my teens that was probably the first time I became vaguely conscious of a latent (although denied by some) connection between feminism and blue-collar Catholic Surrealism.

Divine Miracle (1972, Daina Krumins)

The films of Daina Krumins have these qualities, and more. As with most Krumins followers, I was introduced to her via The Divine Miracle (1972). I can’t recall where I first saw it, but it was in the late seventies, and Aunt Greta’s parish icons immediately called to mind Krumins’s film. Another weird image that I had cemented at the time, mixing my mythologies, was from a TV documentary about the suicide of George “Adventures of Superman” Reeves, in which the narrator described the late actor’s devoutly Catholic mother going to the crime scene and placing holy cards of saints on all the blood stains and bullet holes in the room (the narration was accompanied by eccentric flashing images of devotional postcards). The reason I reference the latter is that there’s something of a holy cards-on-bloodstains texture to Krumins’ work.

THE DIVINE MIRACLE (1972, DAINA KRUMINS) still

Krumins was born in 1947 in a Munich refugee camp. Her family immigrated to the U.S.A. Like her mother, Krumins suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Fortunately, her father, who was an accomplished photographer, and her uncle, a Latvian painter, encouraged her early creative eccentricities, which included collecting metal shavings, wax teeth, snakes in formaldehyde, jellyfish, and crabs. Ignoring her teachers’ advice to be more social and pursue a normal life, Krumins received her BFA at the NYU Film School, followed by an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and found employment as a rotoscoper with Lookout Mountain Films. Images from her art and film can be viewed on the filmmaker’s website).

Daina Krumins art

Krumins is a New Jersey resident and has been described as a “homegrown Surrealist.” That description suggests something coming from the earth, which is apt. Krumins refers to her film, photographs, woodwork, and sculpture as preoccupations with textures. To date, she has completed a total of four  films,spending anywhere from nine to seventeen years working on each.

Daina Krumins Aether (filmed performance piece)

The Divine Miracle, which runs approximately six minutes, was the film that made her reputation, winning a total of thirteen awards including first place at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Silver Hugo Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. The Divine Miraclewas shown on PBS and frequently made the rounds of art museums.

The Divine Miracle (1972, Daina Krumins) John Tyler as Christ

In some quarters, The Divine Miracle, with its embrace of surreal kitsch, was erroneously assessed as a parody of Christianity. Krumins, raised Lutheran, disagrees, saying that she believed in all the fantasy world miracles from Sunday school.

Daina Krumins collection Canyon Cinema

For those accustomed to youthful portrayals of Christ (i.e. Jeffrey “I was a teenage Jesus” Hunter in 1961’s King of Kings) John Tyler’s stiff, gray-bearded Christ might prove disconcerting, but the portrayal is in step with 1927’s silent King of Kings, which featured H.B. Warner in his mid-fifties, with the charisma of a cardboard-cutout messiah. It’s also in step with the late, overtly religious work of Salvador Dali, which many critics dismiss as kitsch. Actually, apart from his work in the medium of film and still photography, Dalí’s late, semi-orthodox work is his best, its kitsch quality rendering it even more authentically surreal. Krumins, being a more substantial Surrealist than Dali, takes that surreal quality further, crowning her middle-aged savior with a Gustav Klimt-like golden halo and literally outlining him with bold, thick, opaque lines, as if he just stepped out of a hole-in-the-wall Catholic shop coloring book.

The Divine Miracle (1972, Daina Krumins) John Tyler

Tyler’s Jesus has the most bizarre sycophant disciples ever committed to celluloid: mop-topped bodiless cherubs (just a head and wings, all played by Scott Martin) who encircle their master like horseflies buzzing round a field cow (which, come to think of it, is sacrificially befitting). Jesus’ martyrdom on the cross is followed by an ascension, which looks like a Georges Melies’ Trip To The Moon (1902). In roughly six minutes, Krumins says, and gets right, what other filmmakers have failed to accomplish in three-plus hours. Her film is honest about the idiosyncratic tenets of Christian mythology and, ironically enough, this most Catholic of all films was made by an American Protestant.

Daina KruminsDaina Krumins

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NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972)

“Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!”

NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972) theatrical release poster

Cinematic horror had come a long way since its primitive infancy as part of the 1920s German Expressionist movement. The 1930s Gothic comedies of James Whale, the art deco perversity of Edgar G. UlmerTod Browning‘s outsiders, and the 1940s literary subtleties of  Val Lewton represented the genre in its adolescence. Of course, we are assured that each preceding generation, especially its artists, are comparatively naive—akin to cave painters. So, it should be no surprise that the genre evolved, by leaps and bounds, beginning in the modern era of the 1950s, which brought us the atomic Deadly Mantis in 1958 and topped that within a mere fifteen years: killer bunnies, in a certified classic with “Star Trek”‘s Dr. McCoy starring in his version of the “Wrath of Donnie Darko.” Yes, it’s Night of the Lepus.

NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972) Janet Leigh, DeForest Kelley

This opus of oversized, rabid jackrabbits is such an abomination that star DeForest Kelley (whose career began with 1947’s suspenseful noir Fear In the Night) never made another film outside of the Star Trek franchise. This was at least a guarantee of superiormediocrity. Actually,  despite glued-on porn mustache accompanied by lamb chop sideburns and his polyester suit decorated with a necktie that threatens to swallow him whole long before the Jurassic hares escape the garden, Kelley embarrasses himself the least. Faring worse are former Hitchcock heroine Janet Leigh, “B” western star Rory Calhoun, Paul Fix, and Stuart Whitman. MGM (!?!) apparently never read the script, and later placed the entire blame on Director William F. Claxton, a veteran of anonymous westerns and television episodes (including the immortal “Love, American Style”). Unsurprisingly, Claxton never made another theatrical film after this ( the same fate met first and last time screenwriter Don Holliday).

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FELLINI’S ROMA (1972)

Fellini Roma (poater)

“The name in the title doesn’t seem conceited  or affected, as it might from another director (Peckinpah’s Albuquerque?) This is Fellini’s Rome and nobody else’s, just as all of his films since La Dolce Vita have been autobiographical musings and confessions from the most  personal and the best director of his time.” -Roger Ebert.

Fellini Roma (motorcycle scene bw)

Despite taking the prize at Cannes, Roma (1972) has often fallen under the radar among Federico Fellini‘s oeuvre and it has been dismissed, by some, as the director at the apex of his “self-indulgence”—code for  “non-linearity.”

One might see Roma as a private scrapbook containing overstuffed images cut out with dull scissors. Too much glue is used and it oozes out from behind pictures, making the pages stick together and tear. Naturally, it has far more personality than anything done by a professional scrapbooker, despite not being a complete success. Fellini’s Roma is so personally visual that the dialogue is intrusive.

Fellini directing

Fellini inserts himself into the film, played as a young man out of time in 1939 by Peter Gonzales, adorned in white. The director prophetically steps in himself to personify his later self in 1972, but acts opposite no one, merely ushering us into his gaudy compositions, purposefully taking us nowhere.

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