Like Loren Belasco (John Carradine) in McCloud Meets Dracula and Conrad Radzoff (Ferdy Mayne) in The Horror Star, Malakai is a horror film actor spoken of as the equal of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee who dresses as a vampire offscreen. Belasco and Radzoff are only probably vampires, but Malakai is the genuine article, very much in the 1970s Californian Count spirit of the Yorga movies. It probably hurts the film that Butler didn’t have even the second- or third-tier genuine horror star status of Carradine or Mayne or Robert Quarry, though he’s reasonably imposing as the bearded, pompous, yet sometimes brutal old-school baddie.
Director John Stanley, who co-wrote with Kenn Davis, was a San Francisco horror host and author of a Creature Feature Movie Guide (which awarded this film its top rating) and Nightmare in Blood is among the first wave of meta horrors, not only self-aware of vampire film traditions but set in a fannish milieu. Malakai turns up at a Bay Area Horror Convention and picks victims from various organisers, hangers-on and enemies of the scene. It may be the first fiction movie to pay much attention to horror film fandom, and is aptly backward-looking in a way Targets isn’t – very much a product of the Famous Monsters generation, it’s about fans who are into the kind of gothic horrors that were out of fashion at the time it was made. That’s not a criticism – there were a lot of people like that, as witness the way FM found it hard to cover Night of the Living Dead or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or even The Exorcist with the enthusiams they’d lavish on, say, Return of the Vampire or Man-Made Monster.
In Targets, classic horror star Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) knows that his kind of horror is being displaced by modern atrocities, but Malakai – who literally has resurrected resurrection men Burke and Hare (Ray K. Gorman, Hy Pyke) on his payroll – is a cobwebby relic who doesn’t know the show’s over. By 1978, even Vincent Price – who’d done his own self-analysis movie playing horror star Paul Toombes in Madhouse – had moved on from AIP horrors, while Christopher Lee was playing Dracula as a movie star in Dracula and Son. See also: Lee as Karl Jorla in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour The Sign of Satan, Jason Robards as Matthew South in Fools, Jon Pertwee as Paul Henderson in The Hous That Dripped Blood (another vampire star), Price as Michael Bastion in The Snoop Sisters A Black Day for Bluebeard, Peter Cushing as MacGregor in Tendre Dracula, Paul Naschy as Hector Doriani in Howl of the Devil.
Nightmare in Blood assembles a fan-service version of Van Helsing’s Circle of Light to defeat its monster – professorial horror novelist Winslow Seabrook (Dan Caldwell), convention committee heroine Cindy (Barrie Youngfellow), African-American Sherlock Holmes fan Scotty (John H. Cochran), a Jewish Nazi hunter (Irving Israel) rather like the character David Bradley played on The Strain, and comic book shop manager/guru Arlington (Drew Eshelman). It’s an interesting bunch, though few are written consistently: Scotty’s girlfriend (Yvonne Young) is murdered horribly in a scene modelled on Cat People and he’s only slightly upset and Arlington’s placid statements (‘men will turn to ashes – only comics will prevail’) are kooky in the extreme. Stanley sends himself up in the character of George Wilson (Morgan Upton), cynical host of Fright Flicks (‘the show for Saturday night losers without a date’), and takes a swing at a censorship movement led by Dr Karl Unsworth (Justin Bishop), who has written a book about the ill effects of horror movies called Rape of the Young Mind (modelled on the 1950s anti-comics crusader Dr Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, though Wertham interestingly became interested in science fiction fan subculture later in his career – only to be frustrated that the comics fan subset of the field remembered and distrusted him). Again, it seems odd now that the fictional Dr Unsworth is so worked up about a style of horror that now seems relatively benign – though plenty of talkshow talking heads who sound a lot like him have been showing up from the video nasties kerfuffle onwards.
As a horror film, Nightmare in Blood is fairly thrown-together and rote, without the attack of the Yorga movies or Grave of the Vampire. But it provides an interesting, sympathetic look at horror fandom in the 1970s, with much cool merchandise and memorabilia on display. It’d make an excellent double bill with Free Enterprise or My Sucky Teen Romance. 1950s Sinbad star Kerwin Matthews cameos as the hero of Malakai movie The Zaroff Doom, and young Kathleen Quinlan (billed as Kathy) is glimpsed in a clip from a fictional monster movie. According to the IMDb, future director Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad) is under one of the Planet of the Apes masks in the costumed crowd.