Monday, December 15, 2008

Count Dracula's Great Love (1974): or, Naschy Sez Suck It

Over the course of his long, storied, and continuing career, Paul Naschy has done his best to portray as many of the Classic Monsters as possible. He's put in memorable turns as The Devil, a Warlock, a Hunchback, a Zombie, Mr. Hyde, The Mummy, Jack the Ripper, and of course the Wolf Man in one of the most memorable and entertaining werewolf sagas in cinematic history. He was even a sort of pseudo-Frankenstein's monster in Crimson--if he could work in an invisible alien Gillman ghost somehow, I think he will have hit for the cycle. And of course he also gave it a go as the King of the Undead in this 1974 effort, Count Dracula's Great Love (aka Cemetery Girls).

The result is a film that even I, a hardened Naschy-phile if ever there was one, have to admit is problematic. There's a lot here that had me cheering and grinning like and eedjit--an inventive if convoluted twist on the vampire mythology, some hugely entertaining vampire-seduction and monster-battle scenes, and a level of beautiful bare flesh that's pleasingly high, even for the Mighty Molina. But the movie suffers from pacing problems all the way through, and somewhere toward the end gets bogged down in ponderous voice-over and energy-challenged plotting from which it never fully recovers. The final product, while still worthy of your 90 minutes, has to be ranked as one of Naschy's lesser efforts by even his most fervent worshipers.

Even a lesser Naschy effort has its pleasures, however, and Count Dracula's Great Love is no exception. We open with two workmen delivering a large box to the basement of the "Klinik de Cargos," an abandoned sanitarium near the infamous Borgo Pass that is about to be reopened by the mysterious Dr. Wendell Marlow. The two men prove themselves as unscrupulous as such characters always are, and quickly open the crate to discover a coffin with a fanged female skeleton inside! (You can tell it's female from the luxurious head of hair.) Not long afterward a mysterious caped figure attacks, ripping the throat out of one would-be robber and burying an axe in the other's head, sending him rolling down the stairs--an image repeated in slow-mo, again and again, under the opening credits. I don't know why Dracula is axing people, but the effect is actually quite good, as you can see.

Wave your freakin' garlic at THAT, tough guy!"

Next we join a stagecoach making a bumpy trans-sylvanian trip. Inside is a veritable who's who of Naschyfilm collaborators: Vic Winner (Horror Rises from the Tomb, Vengeance of the Zombies, Hunchback of the Morgue) as Imre, Rosanna Yanni (Frankenstein's Bloody Terror, Hunchback of the Morgue) as tall sensuous sex-kitten Senta, and Mirta Miller (Dr. Jekyll and the Wolf Man, Vengeance of the Zombies) as nervous comic relief Elke. Also along are Naschy Newbies Ingrid Garbo as Imre's beautiful and not-quite-virginal girlfriend Marlene, and Haydée Politoff as the totally virginal good-girl Karen.

Imre spends his time regaling the girls with a brief summary of Stoker's novel, as well as the intriguing backstory of the nearby sanitarium's previous owner, who was something of a mad phlebotomist. I forget where these travelers are headed and why they're all going there together, but it becomes a moot point when a wheel goes flying off the stagecoach bringing their trek to a halt. In the aftermath the stagecoach driver (who is hilariously dubbed with a Gunsmoke's Festus-style accent--he may be in Transylvania, but he's still driving a stagecoach!) gets kicked in the head by one of the horses after they're spooked by that famous sampled wolf howl. The horses escape and run off into the woods, stranding our heroes. (If you see the animals still harnessed to the coach in the very next scene, ignore it--it's an optical illusion.)

Of course at that point there's nothing to be done except for Imre to lead his four emissaries of bonneted hotness up to the sanitarium, in the hopes that the new owner will lend a hand. Of course Dr. Marlow is at home, and he is none other than Paul Naschy himself. He opens the door dressed in a smart suit and bearing a candelabra, and wastes no time extending his hospitality to the women IYKWIM. Despite being quite alone in the mansion, Paul is the picture of suave sophistication, and invites them all to stay with him for a few days until the next supply wagon comes through.

The mouth says "Welcome," but the smirk says "I'll be taking charge of the women now, thank you."

Once in their bedroom and sporting some thoroughly modern nightgowns, Senta and Elke start the expected slumber party girl-talk. Elke claims not to be interested in Marlow because "I like my men slimmer." "Not me," Senta asserts. "I like my men STRONG. Did you see his shoulders?" Elke tut-tuts her friend's sluttiness. "You'd flirt with a broom if it had pants!" As if that were a bad thing.

Over the next few nights strange things begin to happen around the mansion. Dr. Marlow never seems to be around during the day (he claims to be out "hunting"), and never sits down to dine with the group. Not ones to let such things bother them too much, the girls set about being as awesomely slutty as possible. Imre and Marlene get it on quite energetically every chance they get, and the other girls (with the exception of Karen) get naked at the drop of a bonnet as well--even skinny-dipping in the sanatorium's pool in one memorable scene. Karen keeps her kit on but does get a couple of nice spotlights herself, as when she opens the door to a mysterious room only to have a stage hand launch a black cat at her, or later when the now-vampirized worker attacks her in the middle of a storm! Paul comes to the rescue and sends the vampire scurrying, but tells the rest of the group Karen simply fainted. It's almost as if he's got something to hide...

"So the guy says, 'I haven't had a bite in days!'..."

Left to their own devices during the daytime, the girls start snooping, and soon Senta discovers the Book of the Film and lets us in on Paul's interesting but over-complicated re-imagining of the Dracula mythos:

"...Dracula is immortal--he is a sadistic beast, and what's more, a devil that follows Man wherever he may go. It's possible for us to destroy his carnal existence; the devilish perversity that exists in Dracula will reincarnate itself. Once more, terror and death for all of us, and for all humanity!... I'm also afraid that his cruel daughter Rodna will return in the same way..from her ashes will generate a new Dracula. Therefore, each generation will know a Dracula in a completely new form, a thousand times more perverse than the ones before!"

While the whole "Rodna" thing is a definite WTF here, I have to admit I like the idea of the constantly reincarnated Dracula, coming back in a new form to terrorize each successive generation. However, for some reason this mythology was not enough for Paul--he had to inject some romance into the Dracula characterization as well, and so added a few more clauses to the vampire rules: Rodna can only be resurrected by the blood of a "true virgin" who falls in love with Dracula "in the normal way," i.e. of her own free will; therefore, for the whole bat-phoenix thing to take place, Drac has to get a pure girl to fall for him and then sacrifice her for his own eventual resurrection. With me so far?

Yes, it's a twist on the famous Daninsky werewolf lore: just as a werewolf can only truly be killed by a woman who loves him, Dracula can only be reincarnated if he kills a woman who loves him--with the added caveat that she has to be a virgin. (Lucky for Waldemar this isn't a requirement for HIS release.) Presumably this is Marlow's motivation for hosting the four Eurohotties at his abode--surely ONE of them will succumb to his undead sexiness, and then he can raise his daughter, burn her to ashes, and get himself a new skinsuit. What could be simpler, right?

Am I the only one here with a Vampire Bulge?

While the audience is still scratching its collective head over the ins and outs of the movie's vampire mythology, things heat up a little when Imre is attacked and bitten in the hallway by Dracula's vampire henchman, thus removing the one male hero possibility from the mix. Quickly thereafter Imre visits Marlene's room again, leading to a reprise of their earlier sex scene but this time with bloody, sexy results. (A shot with the amorous vampire drawing his lips down Marlene's bare breasts, leaving a trail of blood, is a standout.)

Unfazed by the disappearance of their friends, the rest of the girls go for a walk in the woods at dusk the next day, and Senta gets her foot caught in one of Marlow's traps. (That's an allegory, kids.) Back at the manor house Paul cleans Senta's wound, his stoic suaveness broken by crazy-eyed bloodlust. He's not the only one lusting, as it turns out, and soon he and Senta are making sweet Carpathian love in her room. (That's one way to keep your legs elevated, I guess.) Of course it turns out Senta is *not* the true virgin Paul was looking for, and so it's back to the drawing board for Drac. While all this happens, Marlene comes to Elke in trademark slo-mo vampvision, giving us a nice near-lesbonic biting scene.

Frustrated by his failure to bang a virgin, Dracula goes in search of his last best hope, Karen. Unfortunately the turned and insatiable Imre is also looking for her, and Paul has to come to his would-be victim's rescue, fighting off a vampire you'd think he could just command to leave her alone. I can't argue with the logic too much, though, as the scene climaxes with Paul picking up the rogue vamp and BODYSLAMMING HIM OUT A SECOND STORY WINDOW! Definitely one of the top defenestrations in cinema history. I had to stand up and cheer.

Paul in all his Dracular glory

From this point on the movie really seems to lose the thread. Far from the thousand-times more perverse incarnation Van Helsing's book warned about, Paul's Count is clearly a gentleman and a romantic, as evidenced by one scene in which he frees a fluffy bunny from one of his snares. (Awwwww....) This doesn't stop him from making a meal of a cowboy-voiced villager who gets caught in one of his hunting traps, however. He also really seems to have trouble keeping his minions in line, and we get a few more scenes of Dracula battling his own feral vampire slaves in defense of Karen, who has of course fallen hard for the count, just like in the plan. Meanwhile the Vampire Women ravage the countryside in atmospheric slow-mo, scything one innocent bystander in a barn before performing an amazing 2-story leap to the window of a village girl, whom they kidnap and take back to the manor for Rodna's coming-out party. (The slide-whistle sound-effect here is the only thing that spoils an otherwise terrific attack scene.)

The ceremony in the manor basement is another nonsensical yet still-cool set-piece. At various times we get the Brides of Naschy whipping the village virgin to bloody nudity and then licking the still-oozing wounds, lots of red velvet and candelabra action, and an amazing sequence where Dracula puts a dagger all the way through Karen's neck without harming her! I don't know what black magic book they're using, but I'm definitely checking with my local library.

Things unravel at the end, as Vamp-Senta gets jealous of Karen the Virgin and tries to screw up the ceremony, leading to Pauline Penetration that is NOT of the sort she was hoping for. The entire climax of the film is narrated through very clumsy voice-over while the actors mope around in dumb show--even Paul seems somnambulent here. Karen finally agrees to be Dracula's bride and we get some nice now-you-see-him, now-you-don't mirror makeout shots (I think this is almost a Naschy trademark by now), after which Paul disposes of his remaining brides in a scene that Anne Rice may have blatantly ripped off years later. When Karen gets cold feet, however, Dracula is finally brought down, staked by the only person in the world manly enough to accomplish such a feat.

If it was up yer butt you'd know it.

In the end, Count Dracula's Great Love is a movie made up of many great parts that sadly fail to come together into something truly spectacular. The leaden pace and clumsy voice-over hurt it, although a patient viewer will be rewarded with some of the cool set-pieces described above. Javier Aguirre, who also directed the excellent Hunchback of the Morgue, manages a few atmospheric shots in the sanatorium's catacombs, but the terrible day-for-night scenes don't do the flick any favors. And the print on the BCI/Eclipse DVD, while likely the best they could do, is still in terrible shape--the wear shows worst on the "sexy" scenes that were excised inserted for export, but excised for its original showing in its native Spain--the washed out colors and blurred edges almost keep you from concentrating on the boobs. Almost.

Paul looks fantastic in full Dracular gear, of course, but much as it pains me to second-guess Jacinto, I can't help wondering how much more awesome it would have been had he played the King of the Vampires as more Alaric de Marnac and less Waldemar Daninsky. A viciously evil blood-drinking Paul rampaging remorselessly through the countryside--you have to admit, that would be SWEET.

As for this movie, it's not the best Naschy I've ever seen, but even lesser Naschy is worth the fantastique fan's time, imo. 2.25 thumbs for the parts that are greater than their sum, the ample Euroflesh on display, and Paul in his red-lined cape and widow's peak intoning "My friend Satan is with us!" Which is the kind of line that would improve ANY movie. It's like horror MSG.

"Look deep into my eyes..."

"You are getting very..."



Nota Bene: BCI/Eclipse's recent pressing of the flick as part of its "Welcome to the Grindhouse" double-fature series (along with "Vampire Hookers") inexplicably uses the less awesome and entirely misleading title "Cemetery Girls"--not only does that say nothing about Dracula, there isn't even a cemetery set to be found anywhere in the flick! Not only that, but once you pop the DVD in, the disc menus all say "Count Dracula's Great Love," as do the opening credits. I'm not sure what the reasons were for this executive decision, but I hope they were good ones.


Tenebrous Kate said...

>>I don't know why Dracula is axing people, but the effect is actually quite good, as you can see

Hmmm... maybe this is related to Dracula's affinity for dynamite in Fred Dekker's "Monster Squad." Food for thought!

Fred said...

I remember the first time I saw this on late night tv in New York (I think Channel 5 was showing it) and a great deal of nudity was left in the print. I guess the programers were too bored or lazy to preview the film, not that I was complaining.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Empress--I'd put Naschy's axe-wielding Count up against Dekker's TNTpire any day! It still wouldn't be a fair fight...

Fred--that's pretty funny! My first exposure was on Netflix instant-view, which is sadly one of the Elvira movies they have on tap, with the Mistress of the Dark doing her periodic break-in schtick. It still had the nudity too, though, which made Elvira's quips easier to bear.

The BCI/Eclipse dvd that just came out is definitely the way to go though, as it also includes Vampire Hookers w/ John Carradine. Don't know much about THAT one (yet), but I'm guessing there's no way it can live up to the title. :)

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