Every day, in every way, I find new reasons to thank God for that fateful afternoon I found a $1 copy of Paul Naschy's Vengeance of the Zombies in the Halloween bin at my local discount store. Not only did that purchase introduce me to the fantastic, uplifting, and life-affirming movies of Jacinto "Mighty Mighty" Molina--his legendary cursed nobleman Waldemar Daninksy, his evil-to-the-core sorcerer-knight Alaric de Marnac, and the rest of his unique, awe-inspiring filmography--it has since helped open my eyes to whole realms of the fantastique that otherwise might have remained dark to me. That seemingly chance discovery many Octobers ago has changed my life, and awakened me to pleasures that have enriched my experience of mad mad mad mad movies in ways I cannot even begin to catalogue properly.
That movie also introduced me to the cinematic vision of Argentina-born director León Klimovsky, who helmed not only VotZ but also collaborated with Naschy on Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf, The Devil's Possessed, A Dragonfly for Each Corpse, and all-time Vicar-fave The Werewolf versus the Vampire Women. With a true painter's eye for eerie, effective compositions and striking supernatural imagery, Klimovsky helped shape the Naschy legacy and doubtless influenced Molina's own directorial style when he finally stepped behind the camera himself.
But of course Naschy made movies without Klimovsky, and so did Klimovsky without Naschy--and if his 1972 spooky vampire tale The Dracula Saga (released in the US this year by Deimos DVD, which has also been putting out excellent editions of many of Naschy's great films) is representative of the rest of his body of work, he is a director whose name every fan of horror, the fantastique, and the MAD should hold in even higher reverence.
We open with some very stylish titles--black background marred by a splash of brilliant red blood, growing larger with each subsequent drip. Simple, classic, beautiful. Count Dracula himself speaks to us in voice-over, recalling a time when the Dracula family was all but extinct. Fearing an end of the aristocratic bloodline, the Count's great-grandfather (the previous Count Dracula) sends for his newly married and 5-months-knocked-up granddaughter Berta and her skinny blond slip of a husband Hans to visit the castle where Berta grew up and, he hopes, stay long enough to drop an heir to the Dracula line.
On the coach ride to Bistritz, Berta is plagued by horrible, wonderful nightmares. Shot through what looks like one of those marbled glass mirrors your grandma had in the 70s, the visions find Berta running through an abandoned, sunlit house, in a seemingly endless Hall of Doors. Every now and then she opens a door to find a hideous, hissing Man-Bat creature waiting for her! The freakiness of which is not to be understated. She awakens with a start in Hans's spindly arms, only to find that the horses have been spooked by something and refuse to go any closer to the Borgho Pass. However, the feisty coachman offers to walk with them the mile or so into the village, carrying their bags himself, since obviously neither Berta nor Hans has the physical strength to manage it.
a long-haired hunchback type who regales the travellers with tales of lamias in the woods and an abandoned churchyard fifteen leagues distant whose eerie bell can be still be heard, rung by no human hand. "The cemetery of Vlad Tepes," he warns them, "is inhabited only by the dead!" Well, duh. Despite the nice, creepy warning, the travelers decide to continue on foot to their final destination.
Soon they're off traipsing through the creepy woods, and a soundtrack blast of that famous sampled wolf howl tells us that something evil's afoot. (At least we can infer the creepiness from the soundtrack--the pristine digital print Deimos has given us, while it gives us some truly gorgeous colors and creepy contrasts later, certainly doesn't do the day-for-night cinematography any favors.) Sure enough the pair soon stumble over the body of a peasant girl--topless, with tell-tale fang marks not only in her neck, but on her exposed boobs! The girl is not dead, however--she gets up and takes a few steps before collapsing from loss of blood. Somehow Hans and Berta get her back to the village.
The villagers are a colorful lot--we have the gruff superstitious innkeeper, the wanton one-eyed drunken gadabout who finds every horrible thing extremely hilarious, the inquisitive doctor/investigator who also happens to be crippled for some reason, and the more-than-slightly manic village preacher, who opines that the girl (now stretched out on a table in the pub for examination) "provoked wickedness" with her looks and got the wages of her sin. "There on the table you see LUST stretched out!" he cries, a little too enthusiastically IYKWIM. The innkeeper's wife gives Berta some info on her family history, none of it good, and a previously bitten barmaid puts the moves on Hans, only to be REJECTED but later taken up on her offer by a mysterious cloaked figure in her room (to whom she bares her breasts Hulkamania-style...zang).
Berta, meanwhile, is having more awesome dreams, this time involving an old woman in a black choker who really loses her head if people mess with her jewelry (an old story, and creepily well-done here). In the morning a suave stranger named Gabor, a servant of the Count, has come to bring them to the castle at last. Gabor is a real pleasure to watch, an understated Renfield character with young Oliver Reed-handsomeness and crazy eyes second to none--well, maybe one. His oily smiles and strange nonchalance--as when Berta discovers what appear to be the graves of her grandfather and cousins in the family crypt, despite having been told they were all waiting for her at the castle, and Gabor laughs manically and sighs, "Oh, don't let it worry you." Seriously, some people are just so uptight.
Hans and Berta are forced to eat lunch alone when none of their hosts show up, and they help themselves to a cold dinner of nearly-raw meat and Chateau du Temprapaint wine that Hans pronounces "horrible!" and yet continues to drink; Berta wisely abstains. After dinner Hans notices a portrait of a regal, commanding, beautiful woman whom Berta doesn't recognize--and who we later learn is the count's new wife. Hans quickly becomes hypnotized by it--and since the countess is played by Eurobeauty Helga Liné (Naschy's gorgeously icy partner in evil from Horror Rises from the Tomb), well, no fucking wonder.
A couple of things worth noting at this point. First of all, it appears that Klimovsky is playing around a little with some visual experiments, much as he pioneered the creepy and effective slow-motion vampire sequences in WWvVW. For scenes inside the castle, for instance, there often seems to be a gauzy fabric or something over the lens, lending a dreamlike, almost "canvas" quality to the visuals. I'm not sure how effective it is (at first I thought it might be a flaw in the transfer, or something wrong with my TV), but it is interesting. Also, Berta's history with the family is a bit confusing, since apparently she grew up at the castle, had her two female cousins for playmates, and remembers her grandfather fondly and without a hint as to his vampirism. It's implied that perhaps Helga brought the curse with her, as one might easily believe--her character exudes evil commanding sexuality in every frame--but since grandpa's name on his tombstone reads "Ivor Vlad Tepes"--well, you can't help but wonder.
Count himself (played wonderfully weary and aristocratic by Narciso Ibáñez Menta), the new countess Munia (Liné), and Berta's beautiful young cousins, one of whom is played by another HRftT alumnus, Cristina Suriani (the painter's blonde girlfriend from that earlier film). The makeup on the vampire family is GREAT, it has to be said, especially on the Count and the Countess--unnatural, otherworldly pale skin and glittering eyes. (The Count explains they suffer a "family illness" that causes the odd skin tone.) Despite the Count's aristocratic bearing, Munia is obviously in charge of things here, turning her cold, commanding gaze on Hans with a seductive, hungry look.
From here things really pick up, with lots of wonderful, creepy set-pieces and plenty of gorgeous Euroflesh on display. We soon learn that the Count hopes Berta's son will be the healthy, vibrant shot of fresh blood needed to keep the Dracula line going, since the only remaining heir is an inhuman monster--"The result of the excesses and degradations of my anscestors!" the Count explains--they keep locked in the attic and periodically feed a villager or errant gypsy girl to. (The makeup on this creature is truly nightmarish and unsettling, and unless I miss my guess must have influenced some of Guillermo Del Toro's fantastical creations in Pan's Labyrinth.) Helga Liné seduces Hans with a vampire dance of love that really made me want to go stake someone IYKWIMAITYD, while the undead family watches pervily from the shadows. Won over to the dark side, Hans tries to inject Berta with his vampire love, but is denied to the tune of two vicious stab wounds and the old "It's not me, it's YOU" breakup speech.
Unable to seduce her to vampirism, the Dracula clan inistead locks Berta in the house and reduces her to a human incubator, waiting patiently for the new heir to be born. In the meantime she starts going a little crazy, wandering the halls of doors during the daytime (just like in the dream!) and chewing on her hair while subject to disturbing abdominal pains ("Don't you understand?" Dracula intones, "She's being eaten from the inside!"). Meanwhile the cousins find the Pervy Preacher walking in the woods and have their wicked way with him (after getting their kits off--double-zang), and two amorous yet still dirty, thieving gypsies break into the castle and get screaming death for their trouble (one at the hands of the Last Son of the Dracula Klan, the other in an amazing head-knocking fall down a spiral staircase). Finally the baby is born, apparently dead, leading Berta to off Gabor Scatman Crothers-style and hobble down to the crypt to finish things off for good and all. It's tied up with an amazing and off-putting final image that I wager will stick with you long after the credits roll.
Enough cannot be said about the visual style of León Klimovsky--this is just a beautiful film to look at, from the bright and wonderful castle sets to the cramped and darkened dungeons and pub. The haunting look of the vampire family, the wild creature design of the Last In Line, the dream sequences, the seductive walking dead, the almost-okay-definitely-too-much red of the family's special "wine"--all work together to create a near-fairy tale ambiance that permeates the whole film. The Deimos print brings all this out wonderfully, with the exception perhaps of the too-bright day-for-night scenes, but hey, this is the 70s--whatchagonnado?
Performance wise, Tina Sáinz as Berta starts out the flat, two-dimensional damsel in distress, but actually pulls out a good "crazy prisoner" turn near the end that I found effective and surprising. Menta as Count Dracula is the picture of world-weary aristocracy, and a scene where he creeps into Berta's bedroom (presumably to feed) starts out feeling pervy and wrong but thanks to his bravura acting turns into a touching, poignant expression of lost nobility, as he finally decides not to take his grandaughter's blood.
Helga Liné, who just absolutely OWNS every moment of screentime she gets. Having only seen her in concert with Naschy before, perhaps I felt that some of her lustre was due to the reflected glory of Jacinto. Here she proves this is not so--she's regal, beautiful, and dangerous, a screen villainess definitely NOT to be trifled with. And her seduction scene with Hans--WOW. ZANG. ZANGWOW.
It's not a perfect film--the experimental gauze filter (if that's indeed what it is) is interesting, but often more distracting than effective. And some of the performances--I'm lookin' at YOU, Hans--leave a bit to be desired. Still, for fans of the fantastique who'd like to see an interesting variation on the Dracula story with added helpings of monsters and Euroflesh, this is one you should seek out. 2.75 Thumbs. And here's hoping we get to see more of Klimovsky's work stateside in the near future.