This obscurity opens with a bizarre sequence that might come from a Turkish or Korean imitation of a Universal-Hammer horror, as a subjective camera barges into Castle Dracula in ‘the 1800’s’, accompanied by the dwarf Igor (Skip Martin in panto make-up) and confronts a tubby, long-fingernailed Nosferatu-look Count Dracula (Dan Meaden). Merlin the Magician (Ringo Starr) and Dracula’s retainer Brian (David Baille) find the Count skewered, but discover that the Countess (Lorna Wilde) is pregnant in her coffin and will give birth to a half-human, half-vampire child destined to be crowned Overlord of the Netherworld.
‘A hundred years later’, Count Downe (Nilsson) travels via the Channel Tunnel (establishing this as set in 1973’s near future) to England, where Merlin is gathering the denizens of the Netherworld in a Museum of Horrors, and studying the stars to divine the propitious time for Downe’s coronation. Meanwhile, Baron Frankenstein (Freddie Jones), the subjective camera staker, is plotting with Igor to wrest the title from his rival, and using monsters to steal ‘a radioactive transfusion machine’ in a footage-eating but pointless hospital robbery scene. Downe, who has devoted his life to music, falls for the winsome Amber (Suzanna Leigh) and decides he wants to give up his title and vampire status, to become a mortal human for the sake of love and art. A wheelchair-bound Van Helsing (Dennis Price) offers to perform a transfusion which will ‘humanize’ Downe (‘I’ve drawn your fangs’), thwarting Frankenstein’s plan to botch a similar operation and get Downe out of the way for good. In the end, it turns out that Van Helsing is Merlin in disguise, Frankenstein is turned into a cloud of red smoke for a hundred years, and Downe escapes from his former subjects to walk in the sunlight with his ladylove.
Produced by Apple, the Beatles’ company, this folly can be blamed on the egoism of rock performers with too much money and not enough self-awareness. Scripted by Jay Fairbank, who played Donald Sutherland’s vampire bride in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors under the name Jennifer Jayne, and directed by Freddie Francis, who had just shot Fairbank’s Tales That Witness Madness in the same haphazard style (lots of zooms, a few tricky irises, slight fisheye distortion), this has the feel of a sombre Mad Monster Party?, telling a story that can’t possibly be taken seriously but neglecting to include any of the jokes or comic ideas that mark even the thin likes of Vampira or Mama Dracula as spoofs. Not quite as agonising as The Vampire Happening, it’s still fairly hard to sit through. Francis must have brought in Leigh, heroine of The Deadly Bees, to be the bland leading lady, while wasting Jenny Runacre in a tiny bit as a Morticia-look ‘Woman in Black’. Shakira Baksh lurks exotically as Merlin’s cat/woman minion Bubastis, and stuntman/wrestler types are kitted up in baggy Halloween costumes to play the Frankenstein Monster (with Karloffian head), a werewolf, the mummy, a Gorgon and other horror figures. The final confrontation with the Netherworlders makes them quite creepy living dead figures shrouded in dusty muslin before smiting them with a Hammer-style trick (a cruciform skylight that lets in the sun), though it’s a trifle hard on them that they get turned to steaming powder merely for protesting against the abdication of their leader.
Nilsson, born Harry Nelson III, was a singer-songwriter who probably resented the fact that his two biggest hits came with other people’s material, Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin” (as heard in Midnight Cowboy) and Pete Ham and Tom Evans’s ‘Without You’ (wailed here over the anticlimactic transfusion). His first involvement with the movies was writing the songs for Otto Preminger’s astonishing counterculture travesty Skidoo in 1968, but he also scored the charming children’s fable The Point before unwisely taking centre stage here. As the sorry son of Dracula, the wavy-haired, scraggy-bearded, pasty-faced Nilsson resembles a young David Puttnam, and his flat dialogue delivery is far less distinctive than his singing voice. Ringo Starr, who also produced, is equally inept under a ton of gray hair as a scouse Merlin, coming off especially badly when playing scenes with Freddie Jones, who is at least professional as the Harley Street Baron Frankenstein.
The few commentators on the film have suggested that it’s supposed to be an allegory of the way a performer feels trapped by stardom and wishes to rebel against his fans, but the film doesn’t really bear out that interpretation. In fact, it’s a film without content, evoking links between monstrousness and celebrity, and music and horror without even engaging with debate on the level of, say, Lisztomania — which also has its vampire fangs and rock God Frankenstein scenes. Nilsson takes to the piano several times — with a backing group that features Peter Frampton, Keith Moon and John Bonham — to do his own songs (‘Daybreak’, ‘Jump Into the Fire’, ‘Down’) and the odd cover (‘At My Front Door’), forcing Francis to Top of the Pops mannerisms (double-exposures of hands on keyboards with piano hammers and nodding heads) as he tries to cope with the difficulty of making someone sitting at the piano singing to himself come over as a cinematic subject. Also known, allegedly, as Count Downe: Son of Dracula, this is one of the rarest of all 70s British horror films, never apparently receiving a release of any kind on its home territory and barely seen in America. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll know why.
From: Ten Years of Terror: British Films of the 1970s (FAB Press), edited by Harvey Fenton and David Flint.