IT’S HALLOWEEN at the SCM
living room offices tomorrow, and what better way to celebrate than to watch two completely unhinged pieces of acid-nightmare 70s obscurity? That’s right, folks: This week’s Torment and the monthly edition of Only in the 70s is a double-bill! As if the idea of slowly losing your mind with one wasn’t appealing enough, we’re doubling the insanity and cranking up the lunacy with two films from 1974, both of which feature Count Dracula, with nary a Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee in sight. Oh, yeah. Hope you sniffed that glue – it’s time to dive in.
Son of Dracula (1974)
Yes, you’re reading that right. Harry Nilsson, renowned singer-songwriter, Academy Award-winning penner of ‘Everybody’s Talkin”, ‘Without You’ and ‘Coconut’, starring alongside Ringo Starr – former Beatle and sometime Pope – as Merlin the Magician. Honestly, need I say more? There’s certainly no danger of confusing it with 1943’s Son of Dracula; this is far, far sillier. Obviously.
Rather boldly marketed as the “First Rock-and-Roll Dracula Movie!”, Son of Dracula chronicles the haphazard adventures of the good Count’s progeny, Count Downe (yes, really), as he struggles to inherit his father’s sable mantle and bring order to his people as King of the Netherworld.
Enlisting the aid of his nemesis Van Helsing (Dennis Price) and Ringo’s Merlin the Magician – wouldn’t you? – Count Downe decides to relinquish his vampiric immortality upon falling in love with a human woman (Suzanna Leigh). At the same time, he has to contend with werewolves, gorgons and Baron Frankenstein himself (Freddie Jones, looking more baffled here than in Dune), all while pissing about with his band in random clubs as John Bonham and Keith Moon guest-drum. No, seriously.
Considering the rampant madness of that synopsis, what follows is a surprisingly boring affair. The tone, ostensibly evoking the classic Universal and Hammer Horror aesthetic, well-captured by Freddie Francis, lurches wildly from awkward slapstick to dramatic stand-offs to actual horror set-pieces. Though supposedly a “comedy horror musical”, the film makes it incredibly difficult to pin down what exactly it’s about. Whether this is a result of the standard rampant nepotism endorsed by Apple Films, performer incompetence or screenplay confusion is beyond me, but I do know that Harry Nilsson looks thoroughly perplexed whenever he shows up.
Ringo, on the other hand is, frankly, adorable. Forever preoccupied with “the astrological charts”, he zips about the place in his funny hat and beard, occasionally stopping to dispense cosmic bullshit and play pool. For those who grew up with Thomas the Tank Engine (or, as recommended, watched Lisztomania) this shouldn’t be too difficult to imagine, but every single line is delivered in the same delightful monotone drawl, dripping broken Scouse with every slaughtered syllable.
As in The Magic Christian, a more self-assured slab of weirdness, Ringo is a fantastic comedic foil in his total, wonderful inability to act. Hearing Ringo Starr murmur, “You are the King of the Netherworld, Count Downe,” over and over again, will never grow old. He single-handedly saves the film from mediocrity and deserves all the backhanded compliments in the world.
Unsurprisingly, Son of Dracula did not receive any major studio backing or a widespread national release. The exclusively Nilsson-penned soundtrack – comprised of one new song, ‘Daybreak’, and numerous prior hits – flopped. The film had a half-life moonlighting at midnight screenings before disappearing off the face of the earth, much to the relief of everyone involved. Fortunately, however, it was salvaged from cinematic oblivion by VHS bootleggers and currently resides – potentially forever – among the assembled grot and filth of YouTube. Should you feel the need, I’ll just leave it here.
Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974)
The only way this could have possibly been even more batshit is if Christopher Lee had reprised his defining role as Count Dracula for the eighth time. As it stands, Peter Cushing returns as Van Helsing and has inexplicably relocated to Chungking University. He tells a bored group of students of the Golden Vampires, a gang of laughably ineffectual vampires roaming through nondescript villages, sporting giant golden bats on their chests.
Assembling a familial team of seven kung-fu arse-handers (headed by David Chiang), Van Helsing sets out to destroy the eponymous vampires, but not after Count Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson) possesses the body of High Priest of the Golden Vampires Kah (Shen Chan) to do… something. Martial arts and bloodsucking subsequently meet, with all the calamitous milieu of chocolate and staplers.
Astonishingly, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is played dead straight. The juxtaposition of esteemed British actors like Cushing – only three years away from Grand Moff Tarkin – and schlocky kung-fu nonsense seems ripe for parody, but the film treats its subject matter with all the campy reverence of any other Hammer Dracula picture. Cushing doesn’t bat an eyelid when the Chinese vampires whip out their nunchucks and bo staffs.
Cushing maintains professionalism in the face of an onslaught of absurdity, commanding his scenes with quiet dignity in a role he had long made his own. Forbes-Robertson, though perhaps not as magnetic as Christopher Lee, comfortably chews the scenery in welcome fashion during the brief moments he’s onscreen, as does Shen Chan. Chan, himself a respected character actor, hams it up to the nth degree with manic energy and cackling laughter. When the film finally pairs Cushing and Chan together, the frame crackles with barmy chemistry.
The film was intended to capitalise on the post-Bruce Lee kung-fu explosion. Hammer, limping into the 70s with diminishing box office returns, teamed up with the Shaw Brothers, the legendary Hong Kong producers that churned out kung-fu films like King Boxer by the truckload. Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, it turned out, would be the final Hammer Dracula movie and ended the Hammer/Shaw Brothers partnership before it had a chance to include Frankenstein. The world mourns the loss of The 36 Chambers of Frankenstein’s Monster.
Hammer would take a 27 year hiatus after the failure of The Lady Vanishes in 1979; Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires would be the last gasp of classic Hammer camp, with an additional dose of madcap kung-fu shenanigans thrown haphazardly into the mix. It’s completely insane, of course, but it’s charmingly so. It’s laughable, of course, but it’s endearingly so. It’s scareless, of course, but who cares? It’s great. It’s also on YouTube! Thank me later.
So ends our crazy double bill of Only in the 70s lunacy, just in time for us all to have a very Happy Halloween. Stuff your faces with sweets (or booze), trick or treat (or drink) and, most importantly, drink. In all seriousness though, all of us at SCM wish you a ghoulishly spooktastic Halloween. Spend it wisely (i.e. not watching this weird crap).