Cinema/TV, Dracula, Film Notes

Your Daily Dracula – Son of Dracula (1973)

Dan Meaden as Dracula, Son of Dracula (1973). With Harry Nilsson as Count Downe.

This unappealing misfire opens with a bizarre sequence which might have come from a Turkish or Mexican imitation of a Universal-Hammer horror.  A subjective camera barges into Castle Dracula in ‘the 1800’s’, accompanied by dwarf Igor (Skip Martin in panto make-up), and assassinates a tubby, long-fingernailed Nosferatu-look Count Dracula (Dan Meaden).  The hand stuffing garlic in the Count’s dead mouth wears a ring we’ll recognise later on a supposedly innocent person – but the clue is only shown to the audience, so there’s not much of an ‘ah-hah’ moment.  Merlin the Magician (Ringo Starr) and Dracula’s retainer Brian (David Baille) 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* to London and wanders through the neon-lit city, glumly snacking on innocents and duelling a werewolf.  Merlin gathers the denizens of the Netherworld in a Museum of Horrors and studies the star charts to divine a propitious time for Downe’s coronation.  Meanwhile, Baron Frankenstein (Freddie Jones), owner of the tell-tale ring, plots with Igor to wrest the title from his rival.  Frankenstein sends monsters to steal ‘a radioactive transfusion machine’ in a footage-eating but pointless hospital robbery.  Downe, who has devoted his life to music, falls for the winsome Amber (Suzanna Leigh),  He wishes 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.  In the end, it turns out that Van Helsing is Merlin in disguise, Frankenstein gets 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 Corps, the Beatles’ company, this folly seems to have started out as a throwaway joke then got bogged down.  Scripted by Jay Fairbank, who played Donald Sutherland’s vampire bride in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) 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? (1967).  It can’t possibly be taken seriously but neglects to include any of the jokes or comic ideas which mark even the thin likes of Vampira (1974) or Mama Dracula (1980) as spoofs.  Not quite as agonising as Francis’ Gebissen wird nur nachts – das Happening der Vampire (The Vampire Happening) (1971), it’s still fairly hard to sit through.  If it weren’t for the fact that a) nobody saw it and b) no one would want to imitate it, Son of Dracula might be considered a precedent for Brian DePalma’s excellent Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Roy Ward Baker’s slipshod The Monster Club (1980) in its mix of music, monsters and mayhem.  Leigh, heroine of Francis’s The Deadly Bees (1967), is a bland leading lady, while Jenny Runacre is wasted in a tiny bit as a Morticia-look ‘Woman in Black’.  Shakira Baksh (later Mrs Michael Caine) lurks as Merlin’s cat/woman minion Bubastis, and stuntman/wrestler types kitted out in baggy Halloween costumes play the Frankenstein Monster (with Karloffian flat head), the mummy, a Gorgon and other horror archetypes.  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.

Singer-songwriter Nilsson 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 over the anticlimactic transfusion).  His first involvement with movies was writing the songs for Otto Preminger’s astonishing counterculture travesty Skidoo (1968) but he also scored the charming children’s fable The Point (1971) before unwisely going along with pal Ringo’s idea that he appear in a musical horror film.  Some find stocky American Lon Chaney Jr an unconvincing Hungarian Count Alucard in Robert Sidomak’s Son of Dracula (1943), but Chaney at least has an imposing presence.  In contrast, 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.  Starr is equally inept under a ton of gray hair as a scouse Merlin, especially when playing against the unflappable Freddie Jones’s Harley Street Baron Frankenstein.

A few commentators suggest it’s supposed to be an allegory about a performer trapped by stardom who wishes to rebel against his fans … but the film doesn’t really bear out that interpretation.  Or any interpretation.  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 (1975) — which also has its vampire fangs and rock God Frankenstein scenes.  Nilsson takes to the piano several times** 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).  Allegedly, Francis wearied of dealing with pop star egos and quit the film mid-production – later, he expressed some surprise that it was even finished.  Starr, also credited as producer, may even have been responsible for taking the movie over the finishing line.  At some point, Douglas Adams, Graham Chapman and Bernard McKenna were hired to write funny dialogue which could be dubbed over the film in the style of Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily (1966) – but that version was never completed.  Asked about the film in later years, Ringo admitted ‘no one would take it’.

Before it showed up on youtube, Son of Dracula was one of the rarest of all 70s British horror films, never receiving a release of any kind on its home territory and barely seen in America.  Once you’ve seen it, you’ll know why.

*Establishing this as set in 1973’s future, though Pulp (1972) is still playing in Leicester Square.

**The Count Downes, his backing group, includes Peter Frampton, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Rikki Farr, Bobby Keyes, Klaus Voormann and Leon Russell.  The film disappeared but the soundtrack album – which includes a lot of other material – didn’t do badly.


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