Tag Archives: 1972

1972 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DRACULA A.D. 1972, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, AND THE THING WITH 2 HEADS

1972  is perhaps the most prolific year in the most prolific decade of horror and exploitation films. It’s also the year for what may be the quintessential midnight cult move: Pink Flamingos, now enshrined as one of the 366 weirdest movies of all time. Blood Freak, which is the first and only “Christian” movie to date about a turkey serial killer, is another Certified Weird 1972 exploitation picture. Competing with Freak fro sheer awfulness was Don Barton’s Zaat (AKA Blood Waters of Dr. Z), which went onto “MST3K” infamy.

In its Blu-ray presentation, ‘s maligned Baron Blood has proven better than its reputation, despite a miscast in the title role. Like most of Bava, it’s stylishly irresistible. The 1972 Amicus omnibuses Asylum and Tales from the Crypt both starred , and were critical and box office successes. Ben, Dr. Phibes Rise Again, and Beware The Blob were all inferior sequels—which is saying a lot in the case of an original monster who was just moving silly putty. tackled the two big undead kahunas (with plenty of added sex) in The Erotic Experiences of Frankenstein and Daughter of Dracula. The Count rose yet again in Count Dracula’s Great Love, starring Paul Naschy. Future King of Cartoons (William Marshall) and director William Crain fused horror with blacksploitation for the first time in Blacula. It was a enough of a box office success to warrant  (superior) sequel in 1973. Unfathomably busy, Cushing and teamed up for ‘ underrated Creeping Flesh, Gene Martin’s cult favorite Horror Express, Peter Sasdy’s misfire Nothing but the Night, and the Hammer opus Dracula AD 1972 (directed by Alan Gibson).

Widely scorned, Dracula A.D. 1972 reunited Cushing’s Van Helsing with Lee’s bloodsucker in a modern setting, even though Dracula himself is confined to a Gothic church. It’s one of ‘s favorite movies. The contemporaneous critical backlash was mostly justified. Lee, probably the best cinematic Count, is reduced to second vampire-in-waiting. But as an artifact of its time, Dracula A.D. 1972 is not entirely without virtue, enough to explain Burton’s affection.

It opens in the previous century with Dracula and Van Helsing locked in mortal combat aboard a stagecoach, which crashes, causing the vampire to be impaled on the spokes of the coach’s wheel. As Dracula attempts to free himself, a battered and bleeding Van Helsing interferes, driving the spokes in deep enough to snuff out the life of his nemesis before dying himself. Witnessing the scene is a Dracula disciple who, of course, leaves with the vampire’s relics (handy for later resurrection). Despite the preposterous   accidental impalement, it’s a red-blooded, Gothic prologue that is followed by 1972’s swinging hippies.

Still from Dracula 1972 ADInitially sounding more like old fuddy-duddy Edward Van Sloan than Peter Cushing, Lorimer Van Helsing, grandson of Abraham, lectures his granddaughter Jessica (Hammer babe Stephanie Beacham) all about the wrong crowd and premarital sex. Pooh-poohing gramps, Jessica heads straight for the wrong crowd, Continue reading 1972 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DRACULA A.D. 1972, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, AND THE THING WITH 2 HEADS

273. THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)

“…a writer or painter cannot change the world. But they can keep an essential margin of nonconformity alive… The final sense of my films is this: to repeat, over and over again, in case anyone forgets it or believes to the contrary, that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.”–Luis Buñuel, 1973

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , , , Bulle Ogier, Stéphane Audran, , Julien Bertheau

PLOT: Two well-to-do couples arrive at the home of a third for dinner, but find there has been a misunderstanding on the date, and their hostess has not prepared a meal. The sextet tries to reschedule dinner over and over, but meets with increasingly absurd obstacles: dead restaurateurs, a platoon of soldiers who intrude on the evening, police officers who burst in and arrest the entire party before the first course. Complicating the scenario further is a bishop who imposes himself on their party, flashback ghost stories told by minor characters, a subplot about an ambassador smuggling cocaine and being hunted by a female terrorist assassin, and scenes that turn out to be dreams.

Still from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Buñuel had announced that he would retire after Tristana (1971), but was inspired to make this movie by a story his producer Serge Silberman told him about having dinner guests show up unexpectedly due to a calendar mix-up.
  • Co-written by Surrealist screenwriting specialist , who became Buñuel’s most significant collaborator (surpassing even ). He assisted with writing duties on the director’s great 1967-1977 French renaissance period.
  • Among other honors, Discreet Charm won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (an indifferent Buñuel did not bother to show up to accept the award) and is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
  • Stephen Sondheim has a musical based on both The Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in the works.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shots of the six bourgeois friends, walking down an isolated country road, inserted at random between scenes. Their stride is purposeful, their destination… nowhere.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dinner theater; bishop with a shotgun; electrified piano cockroach torture

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Buñuel’s exercise in bourgeois frustration begins simply, with a canceled dinner appointment, but quickly spirals out of control with a cocaine smuggling subplot, a foxy female terrorist, a vengeful bishop, and dreams inside of dreams. They never do get to that dinner party, although Fernando Rey does get to sneak in a slice of lamb and a midnight snack.


Original trailer for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

COMMENTS: Luis Buñuel is cinema’s poet of frustration, of eternal Continue reading 273. THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)

CAPSULE: OUT 1: NOLI ME TANGERE (1971)/OUT 1: SPECTRE (1972)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Rivette

FEATURING: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Juliet Berto, Michele Moretti, , Bernadette Lafont, Bulle Ogier, Francoise Fabien, Hermoine Karagheuz, Eric Rohmer

PLOT: Two theatrical troupes: one amateur and one professional, with different artistic approaches, rehearse plays by Aeschylus. Two loners: one male and one female, both scam artists, operate independently of each other. All these players are seemingly connected via a loose conspiracy of “13,” inspired by the work of Honoré de Balzac and .

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The improvisational framework is experimental, but it’s more conventional in its overall form. Rivette’s follow-up feature, Celine and Julie Go Boating, which is indebted to Out 1 in its production and concept, is closer to “weird.”

COMMENTS: Out 1 was long hyped as “the Holy Grail of modern French cinema,” and that was not mere hyperbole. After French television turned the project down, a four-and-a-half-hour cut, Spectre, was edited to screen in theaters (with an intermission). The original version thirteen-hour version, Noli Me Tangere (Don’t Touch Me) was screened only once in workprint form in the early 70’s. A re-edited version followed in the late 80’s, and a “finished” version turned up on German and French television in the early 90’s.

At first, watching the complete, restored Out 1 may seem a daunting enterprise, but in a world of binge viewing, it seems very contemporary, while simultaneously presenting a time capsule of France in the early 70’s. Out 1 explores the role of art (specifically theater) in society, interpersonal relationships, and secret societies/conspiracies, all in a way that is very entertaining—much more than the words “experimental feature” would suggest.

Looking at it 45 years later, one thing that helps give Out 1 some perspective are the events of May ’68, which is the hub from which the story revolves around. After a brief period of revolution and the hope of all things possible, we pick up two years later; and while the revolutionary spirit is still alive in the efforts of the troupes, everyone involved is disillusioned with their current reality to some degree. The passing of a note to Colin (Leaud) by an unknown woman—seen as one of the actors in one of the troupes—stirs him to investigate the concept of the “13,” and its effect ripples out among the characters. Is there indeed a conspiracy? Or is the conspiracy merely an abstract concept of a fleeting ideal that may never be obtained, but should always be pursued?

The Noli Me Tangere version, presented over eight episodes, anticipates such shows as “Lost” with its canvas of characters and a central mystery at the core. However, while that mystery provides dramatic momentum, it is not the primary focus; in fact, it isn’t until Episode 5 that it begins to coalesce. A substantial portion of each episode focused on the exercises and rehearsals of both troupes, and their succeeding analyses. It’s a detailed look at theatrical process, and while some may find these sections maddening, they’re an important part of the whole: “acting”  and “performance” are the main subjects, after all. The characters’ interactions with each other at many points are performances, especially the outsiders Colin and Frederique (Berto), whose scams are another form of improvisation. And the entire enterprise is a performance by everyone involved. The Spectre version keeps this basic frame intact, yet at four hours, much is condensed. Scenes are rearranged, some tangents are dropped, and the “Conspiracy of 13” aspect is center stage.

BLU-RAY/DVD INFO: In 2016, Carlotta released a region free box set in North America of both versions of Out 1 on Blu-ray and DVD, featuring a 2K restoration. Also included in the set is a documentary, The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s OUT 1 Revisited, which is extremely informative, and a 120 page booklet with essays and notes. For those in the UK or with region free players, Arrow UK issued the box set “The Jacques Rivette Collection” which includes Out 1, and the additional Rivette features Duelle, Noroit and Merry-Go-Round.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

Order of the Exile – Jacques Rivette website

Introduction to Rivette – Jonathan Rosenblum essay on Rivetter

Out 1 And Its Double – Jonathan Rosenblum’s essay from the box set release

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Uniquely ambitious, Rivette’s film (technically a serial) spends nearly 13 hours stitching paranoia, loneliness, comedy, and mystical symbolism into a crazy quilt big enough to cover a generation.”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

263. ROMA (1972)

AKA Fellini’s Roma

“Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city.”–Anatole Broyard

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Gonzales Falcon

PLOT: Roma is a series of vignettes, some relatively realistic and some fantastic, about the city of Rome. The closest thing to a plot are the scenes involving Fellini himself, who dreams about the city as a young man, comes there as a teen, and then is seen making a movie about the city as an adult. Other segments involve a bawdy street meal, a vaudeville show during World War II, modern hippies drifting through Rome, a pair of brothels, and the infamous ecclesiastical fashion show.

Still from Roma (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Fellini came to Rome from Rimini as an 18-year old to go to law school, although he quickly abandoned that pretense to pursue an artistic career path. Although it seems clear that Fellini means for the young provincial boy who dreams of Rome and the young man who steps off the train and into a Roman pensione to be his stand-ins, the director never makes this explicit. United Artists asked for voiceover narration to make this identification clear in the version that played in the U.S.
  • The film was shortened by nine minutes (to a running time of two hours) for its international release, and some changes were made for different markets. Slightly different cuts have circulated for years, and there is no restored print of the original Italian version, although the extra footage survives in workprints. Among the deleted scenes was one where appeared as himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The star image here could not be something other than an offering from the ecclesiastical fashion show. Candidates include the bishops’ uniforms with blinking stained glass patterns and a shrouded skeletal “memento mori” carriage that carries up the end of the procession. We’ll select the grand finale, the appearance of a glowing, flying Pope cast as a pagan sun god, with electronic sunbeams streaming behind his beatifically beaming countenance.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Horse on the highway; fading frescoes; light-up miter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The speedy editing of the U.S. release trailer misleadingly emphasizes the decadent aspects of Fellini’s Roma, making it look like a trippy sequel to Satyricon for the pot-smoking college midnight movie crowd. In truth, while Roma is experimental and disorientingly non-linear, it’s greatly restrained compared to its psychedelic predecessor. Most of the sequences are only subtly strange, pitched in the almost-realistic register of Fellini’s next film, Amarcord. Or at least, that’s the case up until the fashion show, when Fellini ignites the film with a surreal, blasphemous brand. This grand vaudeville sequence, which lasts over 15 minutes, catapults the film from a borderline curiosity from an innovative master to an acknowledged staple of the weird canon.


American release trailer for Roma

COMMENTS: Rome is the eternal city, once the seat of Europe’s Continue reading 263. ROMA (1972)

258. BLOOD FREAK (1972)

“The World’s Only Turkey-Monster-Anti-Drug-Pro-Jesus-Gore Film!”–Blood Freak Special Edition DVD box cover

DIRECTED BY: Brad F. Grinter, Steve Hawkes

FEATURING: Steve Hawkes, Dana Sullivan, Heather Hughes, Brad F. Grinter

PLOT:  Herschell, a Vietnam vet biker, helps good Christian girl Angel fix a flat tire and then accompanies her to a drug party. Angel preaches to the sinning partiers and warns Herschel not to sample marijuana, but temptation of the flesh comes via Angel’s bikini clad sister, Ann. Once hooked on the wiles of the devil, Herschell gets a job at a turkey farm, transforms into a gobbling vampire, and goes on a rampage before finding out he has been hallucinating on pot, which leads him and the now “saved” bikini babe to Jesus.

Still from Blood Freak (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Co-writer/producer/director and star Hawkes took the job to help pay medical bills he incurred as a result of skin grafts necessary to repair third degree burns he received doing a stunt while starring in a Spanish Tarzan film. He referred to Blood Freak as “a sad chapter in my life.” He later started a shelter for wild animals (before being shut down by Florida authorities for not complying with state regulations).
  • The cast consists mostly of acting students from Grinter’s class (yes, he actually was an acting teacher), including an amputee who came in handy as a victim who gets his leg cut off.
  • The original financier backed out of this labor-of-love-by-idiots (apparently, he saw some of the footage), leaving Steve Hawkes and Brad Grinter to finish Blood Freak out of their own pockets.
  • The film was originally rated “X” for violence.
  • Hawkes made a twenty-first century celluloid “comeback” in a pair of zombie movies that no one has seen.
  • Grinter’s only other film “of note” is Flesh Feast (1970), which inspired Veronica Lake to come out of retirement (!?!) to play an insane plastic surgeon whose patient is a zombified Adolf Hitler. Naturally, she comes to her senses and disposes of  the former dictator with chemically bred maggots. After getting saved, Grinter, like Hawkes, retired to a life of Christian anonymity in Florida, dying in 1993.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An Elvis imitator donning a papier-mâché turkey head and butchering rubberneckin’ potheads.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Chain-smoking anti-drug narrator; proselytizer in Daisy dukes; bad pot/experimental turkey interaction

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Just for starters, the opening narration, delivered by a pencil-mustachioed, gold-chain wearin’ co-director Grinter as he chain smokes: “We live in a world subject to constant change. Every second of every minute of every hour changes take place. These changes are perhaps invisible to us, because our level of awareness is limited. Take for example, how the things we do and say to the people we meet, all these things affect our lives, influence our destiny. And yet there seems to be some kind of fantastic order to the whole thing. We never know how or when we will meet a person who will become a catalyst. Or, who will lead us to one. What is a catalyst? Well, in this case, a catalyst is a person that will bring about changes. They could be good, or bad. But there will be changes. You can meet one almost anywhere, in your everyday life. In a supermarket, drugstore, anywhere. Even riding down the Florida Turnpike. A pretty girl with a problem. Who could resist? Certainly not Herschell.” Take that irresistible intro, add a “grass is bad, Jesus is good” message, and mix it with some gory mayhem perpetrated by a mass murdering turkey Nosferatu. Although, viewers may ask: Why a turkey? Do turkeys crave blood?


Original trailer for Blood Freak

COMMENTS:  The Christian scare film to end all Christian scare Continue reading 258. BLOOD FREAK (1972)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE DEVIL (1972)

Diabel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  Leszak Teleszynski, Wojciech Pszoniak, Malgorzata Braunek, Monika Niemczyk, Wiktor Sadecki, Iga Mayr, Anna Parzonka, Maciej Englert, Bozena Miefiodow

PLOT: In 1793, during the Prussian Army’s invasion of Poland, an imprisoned anti-royalist nobleman, Jakub, is freed by a Stranger-in-Black, for reasons unknown. Returning to his home and family, he finds only chaos and madness: his father dead, sister insane, his mother a prostitute, and his former fiance pregnant and now married to his best friend. Encouraged by the Stranger who comes and goes at will, Jakub starts dealing out some hardcore revenge with a straight razor and slipping further into madness; but, who is this Stranger and what exactly is his game?

diabel-3

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is perhaps the first Zulawski film that has most of the elements that he became known for in place. From the opening frame onward, it is completely balls-to-the-wall in intensity, making ‘s The Devils look like a model of restraint.

COMMENTS: “Tell me, does the world seem horrible to me because of my illness or because it is really like that?”

Zulawski’s second feature film was banned in Poland for 18 years (!) and essentially got him exiled to France. In an interview with Stephen Thrower and Daniel Bird for “Eyeball Magazine,” Zulawski explains the how and why of it.

At that time (1971),  a tragedy happened in Poland in this very repressive and bloody regime. A part of the Communist establishment wanted to seize power. In order to do this they devised a very clever trick. They provoked youth – innocent, naive university youth especially – to start a series of protests on the streets against censorship, lack of freedom. They did it on purpose. Then the Communists turned to the Russians, the landlords, saying ‘this government of Poland cannot control the population, so you have to fire them and take us because we know how to deal with them.’ They organized a savage repression of the Polish young people in March 1968… they destroyed the university education system and this generation of young people who were trapped into this protest went into oblivion. They are nothing today; they were never educated, they went to jail, etc. So I wanted to tell this story but obviously I couldn’t say it with the Polish government’s money. So I put it under the masks and costumes of the 18th Century, when several tragedies annihilated Poland and the situation was about the same. It’s the story of a police provocateur who infiltrates a group of young people preparing something patriotic and beautiful and who just destroys the whole thing.

Obviously, the authorities twigged quickly that The Devil was not the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE DEVIL (1972)

CAPSULE: CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972)

DIRECTED BY: Bob Clark

FEATURING: Alan Ormsby, Anya Ormsby, Paul Cronin

PLOT: An amateur acting troupe, led by their eccentric and egotistical director, head out to an island to conduct experiments that merge theater with the recently deceased—namely a corpse named Orville.

Still from Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Children… is by no means a mainstream film, but most of its weird qualities stem from the fact it was made on such a small budget. While it isn’t a masterpiece, these limitations ultimately work in its favor as it pushes itself beyond the confines of a by-the-numbers zombie B-movie and attempts a sordid originality.

COMMENTS: Despite the romanticism in the idea of low budget filmmaking, especially in the horror genre, it isn’t very often that everything comes up roses. For every success like The Evil Dead or Halloween, we are also treated to tragedies of grand proportions like Birdemic or Troll 2. But even those films, celebrated for their complete lack of any direction or talent, make us forget about the numerous failures that never gain any traction at all. Rather more unknown than these contrasting successes and missteps, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things can be considered a relative triumph for a number of reasons, the primary one being that is isn’t a complete farce!

A good frame of reference here is a film I have previously mentioned, The Evil Dead, which so closely resembles Children that you can’t help but think Sam Raimi saw it multiple times before getting up the courage to embark on his own similar project. It should be noted, however, that Bob Clark’s film was not only made ten years before Evil Dead, but also on a fraction of Raimi’s tiny budget. Reportedly shot over a period of 14 days for only $50,000, you would be forgiven for thinking that Children… is worth leaving to the low-budget purists, but despite its clear aesthetic problems, it actually manages to be a thoroughly entertaining watch from start to finish.

With its undeniably dark and stodgy visuals, Clark seemed to know that his film needed a boost to keep the audience from faltering. The ace up his sleeve is a script that never slows down and gives opportunities for the actors to showcase their considerable talent rather than relegating them to basic stereotypes. Funny, self-aware, cheesy but sharp as hell, the writing in this film elevates it beyond another genre schlock piece. The characters play off each other and create an atmosphere of tension that goes beyond just the sense of dread emanating from the nearby graveyard. Zingers like “Get out of the grave, Alan, and let an artist show you how to call a curse down on Satan” and “man is just a machine than manufactures manure” are hardly groundbreaking, but enough to keep things interesting.

At the forefront of the charismatic and intriguing acting troupe is Alan (played by Alan Ormsby), whose verbosity and arrogance instantly makes you hate him, right up until the film’s final scene. The group dynamics are so fulfilling that Children… sometimes comes across as that live action “Scooby Doo” film that we all wanted, full of wonderful Seventies outfits (but sadly, no talking dog). That is, until Alan unearths a corpse named Orville and uses it to taunt and bully the other members of the troupe who feel the game (or artistic experiment) has gone a little too far.

After a slightly stodgy middle section featuring the purposefully grating character of Alan, the final horrific portion of the film is welcomed gleefully as we slip into bona fide horror territory. These last scenes obviously borrow heavily from Romero and slot in nicely to the ever-evolving culture of low budget horror filmmaking. Dark, dingy and with an anxiety-ridden score, it somehow works. Children… never set out to be perfect, and it never is, but its imperfections are the reason it survived 40 years of cinema and came out the other end, bloated and rotting, but still enjoyable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Truly weird, sometimes effective horror cheapie.”–Ken Hanke, Mountain XPress

CAPSULE: THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Frost

FEATURING: , Rosey Grier, Don Marshall

PLOT:  An elderly, racist, but brilliant doctor on the brink of death figures out a way to keep himself alive through the world’s first head transplant; however, he did not expect to wake up from surgery attached to the body of an African American convict!

Still from The Thing with Two Heads (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the brazenly irrational subject matter, The Thing With Two Heads wears its heart on its sleeve and actually feels rather grounded, even with a two-headed monster on screen for most of the running time. Wacky, sure. Weird? Maybe not.

COMMENTS: Any film fan would be forgiven for being simultaneously amused and repulsed by the title and the concept of The Thing With Two Heads. It sounds ridiculous, and it very much is ridiculous: a low-budget foray into pseudo-science that contains all the hallmarks of classic exploitation fare, unfortunately including the dire production values and clunky, distracting dialogue.

That being said, at times the film is genuinely fun, no more so than during its opening portion in which we follow the adventures of a two-headed gorilla, surgically created by Maxwell Kirshner (played by Oscar-winner Ray Milland—the casting may very well be the weirdest thing about the film). Watching a gorilla tear through a lovely upper class neighborhood before ripping up a mom and pop convenience store just to get his hands on some bananas would be a highlight in any film. Strangely, even though the film looks absolutely terrible (think Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song), the effects with the gorilla suit, and those during the head transplant scene, are surprisingly potent, gruesome enough to make you squirm as the direction refuses to cut away, undeterred by the budget constraints that the rest of the film suffers from.

The Thing With Two Heads is certainly a change from the norm, but once it gets rolling, seeing a mixed-race two-headed creature talking about social prejudice begins to seem standard fare. In fact, the film plays everything so straight that it is difficult to tell whether you are watching an unintentional comedy that has missed its target as a serious social statement or a satire that isn’t particularly funny. Either way, the absurdity outweighs any message contained within the film, which seems more concerned with a 30 minute dirt bike escape than anything else; and, lets face it, Mad Max this is not. By the time the final tonal misstep arrives in a film full of inconsistencies it is difficult to tell whether you have had a good time or not; but, obviously, The Thing With Two Heads isn’t forgettable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Greer is] willing to do anything to get another chance at life, so he volunteers for a weird medical experiment…. The most incredible thing in ‘The Thing with Two Heads’ is not the head transplant, however, but what happens next. Within hours after Milland’s head has been screwed on, the two-headed escapee is on a motorcycle and being chased by no less than 14 police cars. Every one of them is destroyed during the chase, a process that takes so long that seven, or even five, squad cars might have been enough.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972)

“Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!”

Cinematic horror had come a long way since its primitive infancy as part of the 1920s German Expressionist movement. The 1930s Gothic comedies of , the art deco perversity of , ‘s outsiders, and the 1940s literary subtleties of represented the genre in its adolescence. Of course, we are assured that each preceding generation, especially its artists, are comparatively naive—akin to cave painters. So, it should be no surprise that the genre evolved, by leaps and bounds, beginning in the modern era of the 1950s, which brought us the atomic Deadly Mantis in 1958 and topped that within a mere fifteen years: killer bunnies, in a certified classic with “Star Trek”‘s Dr. McCoy starring in his version of the “Wrath of Donnie Darko.” Yes, it’s Night of the Lepus.

This opus of oversized, rabid jackrabbits is such an abomination that star DeForest Kelley (whose career began with 1947’s suspenseful noir Fear In the Night) never made another film outside of the Star Trek franchise. This was at least a guarantee of superior mediocrity. Actually,  despite glued-on porn mustache accompanied by lamb chop sideburns and his polyester suit decorated with a necktie that threatens to swallow him whole long before the Jurassic hares escape the garden, Kelley embarrasses himself the least. Faring worse are former heroine Janet Leigh, “B” western star , Paul Fix, and Stuart Whitman. MGM (!?!) apparently never read the script, and later placed the entire blame on Director William F. Claxton, a veteran of anonymous westerns and television episodes (including the immortal “Love, American Style”). Unsurprisingly, Claxton never made another theatrical film after this ( the same fate met first and last time screenwriter Don Holliday).

Still from Night of the Lepus (1972)As mind-numbing and unfathomable as it may seem, Claxton and the cast and crew play it straight, despite Saber-toothed domestic bunnies, grown men dressed as a Jason Vorhees version of a Chuck Jones toon, and lotza red corn syrup. Predictably, the four legged critters are the only ones who seem to get it, being clearly annoyed by the FX hacks squirting dyed molasses into their eyes.

There is a degree of charm to be found in something so ludicrous being made by such a large, clueless team. Unfortunately, there is no Vincent Price as Irontail to save it from being a crashing bore. The plot is based on the standard Hollywood idea of atomic mutation. A pair of scientists (Whitman and a bell-bottomed Leigh) are solicited by Calhoun. Apparently,  Roger and Jessica Rabbit have been working overtime between the lettuce leafs. Calhoun is sick and tired “of them critters raiding my carrot patch.” Instead of calling Elmer Fudd, the scientists, with help from “Bones,” experiment with harmones! Their daughter (a good argument for birth control) releases the herd of photographically blown-up hares running in slow mo and…Strange things begin to happen at the Arizona Ranch indeed when “COTTONTAIL CANNIBALS” go a-stampeding. Outlining the plot further would only waste precious time.

It is not the yawn-inducing, pedestrian story, but rather the astoundingly slipshod execution (including woefully amateurish editing by John McSweeney) that makes it a movie that can only go well with store bought cardboard pizza. If only this film could have had a director and studio with a taste for rabbit pellets. One can only image what Ed Wood, , or could have done with this. Even more unforgivable than the film itself is the “special edition” DVD, which excised a classic scene of a victim engaged in a bit of sumo wrestling with an extra dressed in Ralphie’s Christmas suit.

The quoted dialogue in the opening above is delivered by a deputy sheriff to a crowd at the drive-in cinema watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. No one is surprised.

The only authentic surprise is the amount of gore: multifarious scenes of severed limbs doused in gallons of tinted Aunt Jemima and extreme close ups of old Peter Cottontail munching away (but it ain’t marshmallow stuck in his teeth).

Actually, Night of the Lepus is probably better suited for Easter than Halloween viewing. It could potentially enliven that hopelessly dull holiday far more than any of those sanctimonious Bible pics always being shown while all the rugrats are out looking for eggs (after the obligatory once-a-year church service). Predictably, Lepus wound up as a so-bad-it’s-good list perennial. While I could think of far better candidates (like any of the Friday the 13th movies), it at least established a slightly hipper tradition.

CAPSULE: BLACULA (1972)

DIRECTED BY: William Crain

FEATURING: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasulala, Gordon Pinsent, Denise Nicholas

PLOT: After being cursed and imprisoned by Count Dracula, African prince Mamuwalde is revived after two centuries when his coffin is brought to Los Angeles by a pair of interior decorators who purchased the Count’s estate. There, he meets what he believes to be the reincarnation of his murdered wife while stalking the backstreets of 1970s LA.

Still from Blacula (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blacula’s weirdness  mostly stems from the manner in which it has aged. While the concept of a black vampire remains something of a novelty (and in fact, Blacula is the first movie to have an African vampire), the story is a fairly pedestrian string of horror-movie situations. Perhaps the weirdest thing about it is that it presents Los Angeles as a town inhabited exclusively by black citizens, white policemen, and homosexuals of both racial groups.

COMMENTS: As an early example of 1970s blacksploitation movies (and as the first horror-themed blacksploitation movie), Blacula is a fairly straightforward affair that nonetheless could be discussed at length on any number of levels. Having volunteered to watch it and write this review, I’m kicking myself for not having taken advantage of the “African-Americans in Horror” cinema class that was offered my senior year in college. That said, I’ll take comfort in the fact that the lens through which I watched this movie was a “weird” one, and at least in that regard, I can speak with some degree of license.

The movie opens in an unexpected way: in 1780, Prince Mamuwalde and his bride are dining at the palace of Count Dracula. They have come as emissaries to Europe in order to discuss ending the slave trade. The Count makes an offhand remark that comes across as a bid to purchase Mamuwalde’s wife, the two Africans try and leave, and bam: the wife is murdered, and the Count passes along his curse to the unfortunate African prince. Throughout this vignette, the husband and wife come across as educated and humane. As to what Dracula’s business with the slave trade was, I leave that to history. Fast-forward two hundred years and a couple of gay antiquarians snap up the late Count’s castle and belongings for a song, with the ambition of selling the Gothic kitsch for a bundle back in their hometown of L.A.

Looking back on that description, the plot does sound more than a little strange. However, Blacula is primarily a period horror piece (that period being, in this case, then-contemporary 1970s). There’s an open-minded black LAPD pathologist, Dr. Gordon Thomas, sporting an Afro, turtle-neck shirts, and a belief that the untimely demise of the two antique dealers was not caused by rats. Appropriately, his best buddy is a rumpled Irish cop, Lt. Det. Jack Peters, who acts as the down-to-earth foil of the occult-inclined Dr. Thomas. Conveniently, the doctor’s main squeeze, Michelle, is the sister of Tina, the young woman whom Mamuwalde is convinced is his wife reincarnated.

So, all the main characters are tied together, to varying degrees of coincidence. They are all at first charmed by the undead prince, with Tina falling (rather quickly) in love with him. She can’t be blamed, really. William Marshall makes Blacula profoundly charming, and it is he who carries the movie with a performance as weighty as that of Othello (unsurprisingly, as he played that role on stage in no fewer than six productions over his acting career).

Shuffled into this mix of B-grade horror, A-grade oratory, and ’70s-grade costume and vernacular are a couple of chase scenes set to a funky score, an eyebrow-raising series of remarks on homosexuals, and a strangely elaborate opening-credit animation title sequence that has a black bat hunting a glob of blood that morphs into a woman. Blacula is a passable horror movie, and Marshall makes the titular villain unforgettable — but this movie isn’t quite on the same plane as ‘s shelved sequel, Funkferatu.

2015 saw Shout Factory’s horror subsidiary, Scream Factory, release Blacula and its sequel Scream Blacula Scream on on double-feature Blu-ray, with commentary by film historian David F. Walker.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘That,’ observes a casual companion, ‘is one strange dude!’ We can only agree… Anybody who goes to a vampire movie expecting sense is in serious trouble, and ‘Blacula’ offers less sense than most.”–Roger Greenspun, The New York Times (contemporaneous)