Comedy Sucks...

PrintE-mail Written by Martin Unsworth Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Horror Obscura - by Martin Unsworth



In the mid 1970s, horror cinema was changing. The gritty independents from the USA were making waves that spread across the world. Hammer productions had ground to a halt. Even spreading their wings into Kung Fu territory with the Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires couldn’t save them.

Its stars, who had up to now, had a steady stream of work from the UK film houses had to accept work elsewhere. Across the English Channel to be exact.

In 1974, Peter Cushing made a rare appearance in the Dracula cape in La Grande Trouille (Tender Dracula), a French made horror comedy, with lashings of gore and a few naked ladies to keep you interested. Well it worked for me at least. Cushing plays an ageing horror star who is wanting to change direction in his career. Rather than the Dracula roles he is type cast in, he wants to move into romantic leads. Of course, his studio want none of this and send two screen writers to his wonderful Gothic castle to persuade him to sign on to another horror flick. The film opens with some awful bouncy music to set it up as a comedy and, to be fair, it does have some moments of mirth. The men have a pair of actresses to keep them company, and to provide some titillation of course. One of them is Miou Miou, who was in the Gerard Depardieu movie, Les Valseuses and the infamous Themroc (one of the red triangle films from Channel 4's early years) and wears a horrid wig throughout, but fortunately not much else.

They are met at the castle by the obligatory ugly servants, Boris and Héloise, who used to be man and wife until Boris had an accident with an axe. “A terrible blow to his manhood” She is now married to MacGregor, Cushing's character. As usual, Cushing puts everything into his role. He makes the corny lines humorous and his sudden angry outbursts are both brilliant and shocking. It is easy to forget the man was a brilliant actor and not just a horror icon, his talent for comedy obviously overlooked, bar a few unforgettable appearances on The Morecambe and Wise Show. Where some actors would easily turn a performance like this into high camp, Peter plays it as straight as he ever does and it is all the more humorous for it.

Héloise (real name Mabel but that was neither Gothic nor romantic enough) is played by Alida Valli, a veteran of French art house cinema, including Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without A Face) but is more familiar to genre fans as Miss Tanner in Dario Argento's Suspiria.

At one point MacGregor is flicking through a book of photos of his past roles reminiscing and we see a few of Cushing's real characters, such asGrimsdyke from Tales From The Crypt. We learn his back story; he came from a long line of grave diggers who disowned him when he ran away to be an actor, and his grandfather had haunted every role he has played, ironically the first being the gravedigger in Macbeth, a role Cushing himself had played earlier in his career.

In amongst the slapstick French humour, nudity and bizarre musical numbers there is some really good gory pieces. Some bordering on the sadistic, with Héloise carving her name into one of the writer's legs. Oh, and dear old Peter gets to do a little bit of spanking too. Nice work if you can get it, eh? At certain points during the film it even felt like a prototype Rocky Horror Show, without being as knowing and self aware of course. 

The whole thing ends with a mass orgy (soft core only obviously and rather lacking in the erotic), with the film director declaring there is no future in horror films, the big money is in sex. Sadly, at the time this film was made that does seem to be true. It is certainly not as surreal and elitist as Jean Rollin films, (which some reviewers have likened this to) and it is one that should be seen if only for Cushing's wonderful performance. It is a shame that the film seems to have disappeared from circulation.

The French trend of horror comedy, for want of a better description, continued in 1976 with Dracula, Pere et Fils (Dracula, Father and Son).This time none other than the Count himself, Sir Christopher Lee, was recruited to don the cape and put up with the japes.

Bernard Menez, who played the main writer in Tender Dracula, turns up again, this time as the heir and only son to the Prince of Darkness.

Again, here Lee tries his best with the pretty awful script but does seem to take himself far too seriously to allow the humour to come though. After a brief introduction, in which we find Dracula take a bride, literally since she is abducted from a broken down carriage, to bear him a son.

The first 15 or so minutes could have come straight from a Hammer film, and is actually nicely atmospheric. It only needed Michael Ripper to turn up as an inn keeper.

The boy is mischievous, locking his vampiric nanny out in the sunlight for instance. Lee's sagely advice “One does not play with the ashes of one's mother” and “ drink your blood before it goes cold” falls on deaf ears with the boy. After 116 years, the boy has grown into a mid 30s adult. Not quite sure how that happened, and no attempt is made to explain it either. Or am I just being pedantic?

Unfortunately he has not yet developed his father's killer instinct and is rather squeamish at biting anybody, much to his father's dismay “I'm not biting him, he has a moustache!” and so lives on cats and rats.

With the passage of time, so the times have a-changed. Hippies are partying in the Count's castle, and they decide to flee the country and start a new life. They dress as sailors and stow away in their coffins on a boat bound for the promised land. Of course, things do not go as planned and they are buried at sea when their coffins are found. This splits the two up, each with a new destiny. 
The Count ends up wandering modern day England desperate for a drink, breaking into a house only to bite down on a blow up doll. He is discovered by a film director roaming the streets and becomes a big horror star. 

The son, however, is taken in by an immigrant and works nights as a security officer, sleeping in a make shift coffin under his bed during the day. The pair are reunited and both fall for the same girl, but of course both want different things from her. The Count, to make her one of the undead, the son to love and live a normal life.

This film is a little better known than the Cushing one, which is a shame because it is not the better of the two. There are several versions in circulation, one in the original French language, with old clever dick Lee speaking all his lines himself, being the multi-linguist he is. An English dubbed version, again with Lee's own voice thankfully, and an American dubbed version.

The American version has all the characters speaking as if they have come straight from a Scorsese film and it suffers greatly from it. They even dub the mighty Lee! The sacrilege. It is also cut differently, and its only redeeming feature is a little pre-credit sequence, made up of badly drawn characters trying to explain the vampires existence through history. No real attempt is made to animate the drawings, apart from some zoom ins and cut out movement. A little like the old Spiderman cartoon. Only no where near as good.

It is to be noted, that even though the Dracula name is used in the title, there is no mention of the name in the film apart from in the dubbed US version so I would not really class it as a return of Lee as the Count. I believe he actually objected to the title himself. But, of course anyone who knows anything about Sir Christopher will understand why and believe it.

Both of these French films are very hard to find, in fact the version of Tender Dracula I saw was sourced from a Turkish TV screening. Although some generous sole has put the whole of Dracula Pere et Fils on You Tube, cut up into bite sized chunks. It is still not easy to digest though.

While on the subject of odd entries into the Dracula cycle, I think it is fitting to include Vampira. Nothing to do with the iconic Maila Nurmi persona from the 50s (and star of Plan 9) this was made in 1974, and is a British comedy with David Niven as the Count. Not the first person you would think of in the role but his dry British wit lends itself very well to this updating of the character. Retitled Old Dracula in America to cash in onYoung Frankenstein, a comparison of which I imagine did this film no favours, this is much more of a satire than a parody. In fact, reading some of the American critics reviews for this prove it out, I think they were expecting the same sort of treatment here that Brooks did for the monster franchise.

This seems a bigger budget affair than the French films, with a great British cast and wonderfully sleazy theme song by Anthony Newley, (a credit for which is strangely missing from 'Mr Candy Man' Newley's IMDB listings). Niven, not being known for the horror genre can really get his teeth into the comedic aspects of the script (I'm sorry, I know that is corny but I had to try and fit it in somewhere). British stalwarts Bernard Bresslaw, Freddie Jones and Frank Thornton all pop up, and the glamour is provided by the likes of Veronica Carlson, Jennie Linden and Linda Hayden, none of them strangers to the genre.

This is really a satire on the 1970s culture and values rather than the horror genre, with the Vampira of the title being the Counts slumbering love who is revived by a blood transfusion only to come back black. The much younger Vampira finds this new look very liberating, much to the aged Counts dismay. What’s interesting watching this today, is it does not have the usual 70s racist undertone. While The Count is a little taken aback at his new coloured bride, and tries to find an antidote to bring her back, it does not resort to name calling, or any stereotype for the laughs. So when she does become hip and 'superfly' it says more about feminism and liberation going on at the time rather than mocking. This reborn Vampira is played by Teresa Graves, who then went on to star in the TV series Get Christie Love! Vampira is out partying in London,, and it's apparently still swinging, after the 60s, while Dracula is putting a young photographer under his control to get more blood samples to hopefully bring back his old love the way he remembers her.

There are some really funny lines, and the film is nowhere near as bad as it could have been, thanks to the writer, Jeremy Lloyd, who should have been allowed to write more for the cinema. He made his name, of course, with classic sitcoms Are You Being Served and 'Allo 'Allo, but please do not let that put you off this!

For some reason this is another film that is quite hard to get hold of. I'm fairly sure it has been on British TV back in the days when they would put anything on to fill the schedules at night. It is certainly better than the George Hamilton film, Love At First Bite, which does turn up now and again, so maybe there's hope. It's certainly worth keeping an eye open for.

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0 #3 Martin Unsworth 2011-07-01 23:31
Quoting Nigel Burton:
For anyone seeking comedy and grue I'd recommend a double bill of Andy Warhol's Dracula and Frankenstein. The latter (re-titled Flesh for Frankenstein and shown in 3-D)

Totally agree with you on the Paul Morrissey "Warhol" movies, can't get enough of Udo Kier!
+1 #2 Nigel Burton 2011-07-01 19:25
I remember watching Vampira when it was on an ITV Fear on Friday about 20 years ago. Although Niven clearly had a ball, I was disappointed in the lack of gore.
For anyone seeking comedy and grue I'd recommend a double bill of Andy Warhol's Dracula and Frankenstein. The latter (re-titled Flesh for Frankenstein and shown in 3-D) was carved up by the BBFC on its release in 1975 and the uncut version was classified as a video nasty. Both are available on DVD in these more enlightened times.
+1 #1 Mr Cheese 2011-06-21 22:46
Love the look of some of these - especially David Niven in Vampira

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