Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cine M.I.A. #3: SON OF DRACULA (1974)

I'll pretty much watch anything with Richard Starkey in it. Not because I'm one of those disturbingly obsessive Beatles fans (believe me, I'm not), but for two reasons: Out of The Beatles, he was the only one who was as unpretentious as you can get with every finger encrusted with giant jewelry and he apparently took enough acid to give himself enough of a unique perspective that in a band who wrote some admittedly strange, drug-induced songs, his was the one that caused scratches on record players around the world. I'm sure he, being the celebrity that he was, he was probably buried in scripts and it’s fascinating to wonder what he was offered that he actually turned down. Some of his choices are quite fascinating: A homeless man, adopted by Peter Sellers to aid him playing elaborate practical jokes on a jaded, materialistic society in THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969); the sadistic, immature, obsessive younger brother of the villain in Tony Anthony's masterpiece BLINDMAN (1971); a white bearded Merlin the Magician... Err, wait… what? Yes, that's right, this is the film in which Starr plays an ethically unstable Merlin the Magician, complete with white hair and beard and a costume that looks like it was made for him by his mom for Halloween when he was 8 years old. And he says things like "you are all my children, Baron Von Frankenstein". And he's helping out Dracula. Well, dracula's son, actually... who is also a musician. Wait, hang on, I'll start again…

In the 1800's in Transylvania, Dracula is put to the stake. Or rather the stake is put to him, much to the delight of a dwarf, who turns out to be Baron Frankenstein's assistant (Skip Martin). When trusted ally Merlin (Ringo Starr) arrives to survey the damage, he finds that one of Dracula's brides is pregnant and will give birth to the son of Dracula in 100 years time. No rush on getting those booties knitted, I guess. Cut to modern day (well, the '70s) and a hearse is carrying a coffin across the Chunnel. After stopping to fill up on gas, the inhabitant of the coffin decides to fill up on something redder and puts the bite on the gas pump girl and her boyfriend. All that travelling sure works up the appetite.

As it turns out Dracula's son Count Downe (the ironically reclusive Harry Nilsson) is due to be crowned King of the Underworld in a ceremony in London that will make him the ruler of all of the monsters. What sort of bureaucracy that entails, we are not told. What we are told is that in the 72 hours prior to his crowning, he is extremely vulnerable. To what exactly, we are not told either. While waiting for the ceremony, we get a lot of scenes that seem to be just random events to help pad the film to feature length. For instance, Count Downe foils a completely random attack by a werewolf on a widow by stabbing him in the sholder with his cane sword. Ok, so Dracula's son carries a silver cane sword so he can settle disputes over prey. Sure, I'll go with that. In another scene he looks into a record shop window that is sporting a full Harry Nilsson display (yes, we got it already), and then heads to a local bar where he has a drink (yes, Dracula's son drinks alcohol), and jumps up on stage to jam with the band. If you are one of those Nilsson fans who sought out this film because of him, no doubt this will be mesmerizing as he barely did any live performances and the musicians he plays with at a couple points in the film include Peter Frampton, John Bonham, Keith Moon, Leon Russell, Bobby Keys, Jim Price and Klaus Voormann. Of course, that is probably all you will take away from this experience. For those who come at it from the angle of the monsters and the cast, the musical interludes (including a lengthy piano ballad before bed) will be a constant irritation. One film, multiple ways to be annoyed!

Note to self:
Never shoot billiards with a sorcerer.
While Merlin, who is into astrology and shoots a mean game of billiards, studies the stars for the exact moment when the Count should be crowned, Dracula Jr. is having a moment of crisis. He doesn't want to be king of the underworld. He wants to be human and to love like humans do. No, really. That is the main plot here, the son of Dracula just wants love. Displaying an uncanny sense of unintentional irony, the Count declares “it’s rather dull.” Indeed, Harry, indeed. To affect his descision, the Count decides to work with Baron Frankenstein (Freddie Jones chewing the scenery with abandon), who has a plan to help him become human, but stay immortal. Sounds great, right? Merlin is hip to Frank's jive, and knows that Dr. Frankenstein just wants to kill the Count and steal the crown for himself! To provide an alternative, Merlin brings in a wheelchair-bound Professor Van Helsing (Dennis Price), who looks like he should be hawking his secret chicken recipe with 11 herbs and spices. Van Helsing will use his degree in psychology (yeah, you heard me, he is a psychologist), an advanced radiation machine and some dippy hippy advice such as "the power of human love must be given to you," to help the Count become human. Honestly, I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

If only this ad had something to do with the movie.

If there is anything more amusing than a cinematic train-wreck, it's a cinematic train-wreck that happens to be a vanity project as well. Actually, I may be misusing the word "amusing". Maybe I meant "grueling". Directed by industry veteran Freddie Francis, I can only imagine that he was dipping into Nilsson's private stash because this film feels in places like it's one step up from a David "The Rock" Nelson production. The camerawork is pedestrian at best, scenes go on for way too long, the musical cues sound like a tune-up session, and Nilsson acts more like a morose, love-sick zombie than a legendary vampire, delivering his dialogue as if dosed to the gills on thorazine. Come to think of it, knowing the reputation of Nilsson and friends, he was probably dosed to the gills on a lot of things. Actually, you'd have to be to make this movie! To make matters worse, the script is a mess, without any actual jokes to make it a comedy, it relies on the constant droning of hippie rhetoric about love being all that you need, which wears thin really fast. The end of the film with Nilsson and his love Amber (Professor Van Helsing’s assistant, Suzanna Leigh) on a farm with the sun setting in the background reeks of those cheesy TV commercials for CD collections with titles like “Love Forever” that can be had for five easy payment installments of $9.99 a month and always featured someone's, if not Harry's, cover of Badfinger's "Without You". If it weren't for the cloyingly saccharine thrust of the last hour of the movie, this would be a masterpiece of fromage. Erm, when I say "masterpiece", what I mean to say is that, it would be much more fun to sit through. Well, maybe "fun" is overstating it a bit. It would just be easier to sit through.

Written by Jennifer Jayne, whose only other writing credit is the lackluster Amicus anthology TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973), with the intent to make it a David Bowie vehicle, it is amazing that this film got made, let alone attracted Nilsson and Starr. But then again, that’s why I like Starr’s filmography. He doesn’t seem to care whether it’s a great movie or one that is doomed from the start. If it’s completely off the wall, of if merely the character he gets to play is eccentric as hell, he’ll sign up. It's not like he needs the paycheck!

Completed in ’72, co-producer Starr found that he couldn’t get anyone to pick up the film for distribution. Reportedly after cracking a window to clear out the pot smoke, he realized that the comedy they had made wasn't very funny. Starr had contacted Graham Chapman to re-write and re-dub the dialogue in an effort to add jokes, but said in an interview that "it makes even less sense now". This version has never been shown to the public. After a year and a half, he finally got a US distributor, Cinemation Industries (who released all manner of exploitation classics from Earl Owensby to Jimmy Wang Yu), to pick it up for a brief run in the States, with a world premier in Atlanta. According to those who remember, the run lasted about a week. According to harrynilsson.com, Ringo said this of the US release: "In America, the movie only played towns that had one cinema, because if it had two no matter what was on down the road, they'd all go down there!"

To this day, the film has never been released on video anywhere, on any format. Some speculate that it is because of Apple films (who had held up the US video releases of the John Lennon championed Alexandro Jodorowski films EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN), some think that it might be the music rights and still others believe it is just because it's crap. Nilsson himself never really let go of it and before he passed was reportedly bringing VHS copies of the film to screen at Beatlefest. Apparently the version he screened was missing the ending and he offered to explain to the audience what had happened at the end of the movie. Now if that isn’t tragic, I don’t know what is.

A sequel? Thank you sir, may I have another?

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