This radical repurposing stages moments from Dracula – the Count (Paul Albert Krumm) forcing a victim to drink blood from his chest, Jonathan (Jürgen Jung) assailed by the three vampire brides, the Count hauling the concubines off his guest with a cry of ‘this man is mine! and assuaging them with a peasant baby – but strips out most of the plot to couch the conflict between Dracula and Jonathan in political terms, with both alpha males eventually lost amid raving crowds of their followers. It is even an early entry in the alternate vampire world sub-genre, set in an 18th century where vampires who don’t fear the sun openly rule.
Though director-writer Hans W. Geissendörfer takes cues from Hammer’s The Kiss of the Vampire and a plot element (the creatures’ vulnerability to running water) from Dracula, Prince of Darkness, he draws on sources as diverse as Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s It Happened Here, Miklós Janscó’s The Red and the White and Michael Reeves’s Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General in staging tableaux of bloody oppression against chilly yet beautiful landscapes. Gorgeously shot by future superstar Robby Müller, the film cartoonishly equates Dracula with Hitler.
This Count rants at assembled ranks of thralls and swans about in a stylish high-collared cape but only rarely gets his fangs dirty – he has a cadre of brutal human thugs to enforce his rule and see off threats to his regime. Arthur Brauss, a familiar German hardman seen as Nazis in Cross of Iron and Escape to Victory, is among the sternest of these SS-like minions. The vampire congregation – choreographed as if taking part in a community passion play – includes a train of scarlet-robed decadents, the three traditional pale ladies and a flock of little girls in pink ballet outfits.
Student of a doddery Professor Van Helsing (Oskar von Schab), Jonathan – like Harker in Hammer’s Dracula – comes to the area to overthrow Dracula’s rule. He falls asleep in the coach and his bag of vampire-killing equipment is stolen and turned over to a hunchback who desecrates a store of confiscated crosses and communion wafers. Beguiled by the heroine (Ilona Grübel), who performs a musical number, Jonathan is captured by the vampires and treated brutally in the castle’s dungeons. Many audiences will be more upset by the real onscreen stomping of a rat than the faked branding of the hapless, shirtless hero.
The Professor’s followers arrive en masse, reclaim the crosses and set about violently overthrowing the state, leaving still more corpses littered about the landscape. In an eerie, affecting finale, the Count and his last followers are herded into the sea by the cross-and-torch-wielding mob and destroyed, floating limply in shallow waters as an almost-forgotten Jonathan slumps on the beach.
A bitter vision of oppression and revolution, it’s often shocking yet lyrical, ostensibly humourless but bitingly satirical, enacted by performers who sleepwalk as if hypnotised like the cast of Werner Herzog’s Hearts of Glass and scored with a mix of ominous easy listening from Roland Kovac and romantic classical selections from Edvard Grieg. Geissendörfer later created the long-running soap Lindenstrasse for German TV and produced art-genre oddities The 9 Lives of Thomas Katz, Berberian Sound Studio and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. H
Extract from Kim Newman’s Video Dungeon.