My notes on The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle (1973)
Before Disney owned a whole streaming service … even before there was a Disney Channel … the company maintained its profile with lukewarm TV product like the UK Bank Holiday mainstay Disney Time (clips introduced by comedians) and various skeins that either repackaged old material or produced lightweight filler like this two-part story originally aired on The Wonderful World of Disney in 1973. The come-on title is, of course, misleading since Dracula’s Castle is actually a lighthouse (I’d swear it was the same one seen in an episode of that other 1970s teen detective series The Hardy Boys Nancy Drew Mysteries) but a kid auteur wants to use it as a location to shoot a Dracula movie. The mystery doesn’t revolve around even a fake vampire, let alone a real one (which the Hardy Boys managed), but has to do with a stolen necklace and some mild, unthreatening, not-evil-at-all jewel thieves played by grown-ups Clu Gulager (wild grey hair), Mills Watson (bald, bulbous forehead) and John Fiedler (whiny little fence).
It opens with horror fan Alfie Booth (proto-Carrot Top Johnny Whitaker) and his wussified brother Leonard (Scott C. Kolden) at the movies watching Curse of Count Dracula, which features a grave robber (Ben Wrigley) digging up a fanged Dracula (sadly unbilled – any one out there know who the official Disney Dracula was?). Then, in a precursor to Super 8, Alfie corrals his brother into playing Dracula in his own ‘monster kid’ movie, with their slightly older babysitter (Maggie Wellman) as victim. Mom (Mariette Hartley, reasonably fresh from The Return of Count Yorga) is a mystery writer who’s too busy to supervise her brats, who naturally get into scrapes – mostly because junior detective Alfie’s just-adopted dog Watson has kleptomaniac tendencies. While making their film, the kids run into the crooks in the lighthouse – Alfie just wants to get Dracula and the Sheriff’s Daughter in the can, but Leonard gets out his magnifying glass and wants to solve the mystery of the missing Daumier Necklace. The crooks keep their safe-blowing dynamite next to a big box of fireworks in the lighthouse, so you can see where this is going.
Even as a kid, I thought Disney’s live-action stuff was too mild to bother with and I get a sense that proto-gorehound Alfie would agree with me. That said, I found watching this nearly fifty years on relatively pleasant. It’s unusual in paying any attention to the monster kid generation, albeit a decade or so on from Shock Theater and Famous Monsters, and – perhaps because Disney were wary of Universal’s trademarked monsters – shy away from too many references to the 1930s classics (though Alfie does have the same big Karloff poster on his bedroom wall that I had on mine) and instead kit out Curse of Count Dracula and Dracula and the Sheriff’s Daughter with Hammer references (the Count’s ring left after he’s turned to dust blowing away from ring, the heroine’s outfit). Whitaker had just been possessed in Steven Spielberg’s TV horror film Something Evil and gets much more prominent billing than Kolden, who actually plays the lead. Written by Sue Milburn, directed by Robert Totten.