Vampira (1974) | A dashing David Niven brings a touch of class to the bloodsucking British farce
David Niven’s super smooth Count Dracula is strapped for cash and renting his Transylvania castle out as an upscale B&B and corporate event facility. But when he uses the blood from four finalists doing a Playboy photo-shoot to resurrect his beloved wife, Vampira (Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’s Teresa Graves), he gets the shock of his life when Vampira turns black.
Packing his coffin, old Drac, his jocular manservant Maltravers (Peter Bayliss) and Vampira leave the Carpathians behind for swinging London and a haunted Hampstead mansion to track down the right ‘donor’ to restore Vampira…
Known as Old Dracula in the US (to cash in on Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein), this 1974 vampire comedy was written by Jeremy Lloyd (of Are You Being Served? and ’Allo ’Allo fame) as a vehicle for David Niven, who brings a real touch of class to director Clive Donner’s Carry On meets Confessions of a Biteable Playmate farce.
One-liner vampire jokes are the order of the day, with the best of them deservedly going to Bayliss, although Niven does get some nifty ones like: ‘That look of horror when they realise that it’s me is so exciting’. Drac’s castle dinner show, complete with creepy organ-playing and flying bats, effectively spoofs Hammer’s horrors, while his gimmicky haunted London pad with its screaming, laughing ghosts, satanic imagery and rat-infested well is a nod to William Castle and AIP’s 1970s shockers.
Lloyd and Donner also pay homage to blaxpoitation and spy flicks by turning Vampira into jive-talking disco queen after watching Black Gunn, and giving Niven some nifty weapons, including a cane with a deadly blade, which he uses to rescue a damsel in distress; while Anthony Newley’s jaunty theme tune sung by UK soul band, The Majestics is played over Bond-esque silhouetted credits. Mind you, Niven blacking up for the film’s final shot may have been misguided.
Psychomania‘s Nicky Henson plays horror writer Marc, who comes under the Count’s hypnotic control in order to put the bite on the likes of Jennie Linden and Veronica Carlson; while sex kitten Linda Hayden makes an early exit when her just-turned waitress Helga gets staked with a crossbow. Comedy actors Bernard Bresslaw and Frank Thornton make their hilarious cameos count, while the other ‘stars’ are the gritty Soho locations and David Whitaker’s funky music that has an air of Geoff Love’s fake 1970’s exotica group Mandingo about it. Fangs for the laughs, folks!
The Fabulous Films Blu-ray & DVD release features a lovely transfer, but no extras. Available from 14 August 2017
Blood of Dracula (1957) | Schlocky girls’ school scares
Blood of Dracula screens today on The Horror Channel (Sky 319/320, Virgin 149/202, Freeview 70, Freesat 138/139) at 3.50pm
Sherwood School for Girls should have the inspectors called in, what with its batty chemistry teacher Ms Branding (Louise Lewis) hypnotising one of the pupils, Nancy (Sandra Harrison), with a Carpathian vampire amulet as part of some bizarre scientific experiment…
This low-budget black and white AIP offering, released on a double bill with I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, is worth checking out just for Harrison’s hilarious Nosferatu-styled make-up of fangs, bushy eyebrows and peaked hairstyle. There’s also singer Jerry Blaine (Tab) wooing the girls with the dire musical number Puppy Love and Lewis’ idiotic explanation, ‘No one can calculate the hazards of radiation…’, on just why she’s experimenting on her pupils.
The film, which has nothing to do with Dracula by the way, was retitled Blood is My Heritage in the UK (presumably so not to clash with the superior Blood of the Vampire, released the same year). Director Herbert L Strock followed this with How to Make a Monster, while producer Herman Cohen went on to make a handful of British Bs, including my favourite, Konga.
JERRY BLAINE SINGS PUPPY LOVE
Ganja & Hess (1973) | Hailed and damned and hailed again! Bill Gunn’s cult masterpiece now on Blu-ray in the UK
Some marriages are made in heaven, others are made in hell!
While studying the ancient Mythria tribe of Africa, wealthy anthropologist Dr Hess Green (Duane Jones) is stabbed with a ceremonial dagger by his unstable new assistant George (Bill Gunn), endowing him with immortality and cursing him to drink human blood. Following George’s suicide, his sassy, no-nonsense wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes look for answers, but ends up finding a unexpected soul mate in Hess, which results in the couple’s ritualistic union. But when Hess finally decides to seek salvation in a bizarre act of self-exorcism, Ganja isn’t so willing to give up her newly acquired immortality…
‘One of the most literate, allegorical, and evasive of all horror films’
David Walker & Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog
Before you sit down to watch this, be warned! Ganja & Hess is neither a blaxploitation film nor a vampire movie (which it was intended to be). It is, in fact, a hauntingly original, highly-stylised drama about sex, faith, addiction and African American identity. A cult film in the true sense of the word, its fractured history is the stuff of underground cinema legend.
US playwright Bill Gunn was in the right place and the right time when he was handed US$350,000 to make his debut feature. But though he was supposed to have made a blaxploitation horror to ride on the cape and coat-tails of Blacula and its sequel (reviewed here), he ended up giving his producers an enigmatic meditation on addiction with an improvised Bergmanesque bent and an newly-radicalised African American agenda. It earned rave reviews at Cannes, but wasn’t what the producers ordered. They responded by re-editing it (excising all of the arty bits) and releasing it as Blood Couple (as well as Double Possession and Back Vampire amongst others) for the drive-in and grindhouse circuits. Gunn was furious. And so should have been.
Gunn’s marginalised masterpiece ended up fading into obscurity, while the director himself died prematurely in 1989 (from encephalitis). But thanks to film historian David Kalat, a director’s cut of the film was eventually released in 1998, followed by a HD version in the US under the Kino label. Now, the film gets it UK debut on Blu-ray and DVD from Eureka! Entertainment.
An important work in African-American cinema, Ganja & Hess is much more than just a failed horror movie experiment. Inspired by Gunn’s vision, film-maker Spike Lee has even filmed a remake, entitled Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which hits US cinemas in February 2015.
Ganja & Hess is certainly difficult to digest in one sitting (especially the lengthy monologues), but it’s worth the effort. The images are many and multi-layered, fired by the director’s imagination and intellectual agenda; while the soundtrack is a fusion of soul and gospel, droning psychedelia, and primal screaming. The 16mm and 35mm film stocks used give the images a hazy, dreamlike quality that’s entirely suited to Gunn’s maverick style. And its worth noting that both George Romero’s Martin (1977) and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) share its gritty low-budget look and vampiric/addiction themes.
Cult film fans will recognise Duane Jones from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. He was actually working as a teacher at the time and only did the film as a favour for Gunn; while the guy playing Ganja’s well-endowed lover was in fact a teacher friend of Johnson’s. Ganja & Hess (yes it is a play on the word hash) is a must-have for any serious cult film collection.
THE UK DUAL FORMAT RELEASE
Ganja & Hess is available on Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) from 26 January 2015 in the UK from Eureka! Entertainment, and this what you get:
• 1080p high-definition transfer of the original 16mm film elements, presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio
• Optional English subtitles
• Audio commentary, recorded in 1998, with producer Chiz Schultz, actress Marlene Clark, cinematographer James Hinton and composer Sam Waymon . This is hugely informative and very entertaining, and helps fill in those gaps about the what the film is about. It was also included on the 2012 Kino release.
• Select scene commentary with David Kalat
• The Blood of the Thing. David Kalat leads a 29-min interview-based documentary. Very basic, but informative. It also appeared on the Kino release.
• Gunn’s original screenplay available via DVD-Rom and BD-Rom.
• Reversible Sleeve
• 24-page booklet featuring an essay on the history of the film and a vintage letter written by Gunn to the New York Times in 1973.