Everything I know about audio drama I learned from E’ville

Today I published the final episode of my eight-part audio drama, E’ville, over on the Unreliable Narrators site. What began as a group project became my own mission to write, produce and edit a radio-style serial. Strictly amateur, and an answer to many what-if scenarios rattling around in my head. Could I piece together such an ambitious project using crowd-sourced voice acting from my friends and cohorts? Could I deliver a series of episodes on a self-imposed schedule, eight episodes in eight weeks? Would it be any good?

Happily, all answers are yes. Well, that last one I leave to you, dear listener. But I’m satisfied with the results, as grand experiments go.

I did learn a ton. Some observations, in case I feel the need to undertake something like this again:

Nothing like starting out big. Maybe I should have tried a nice, single-episode short for starters. But where would be the fun in that? I wanted a challenge that combined my many creative interests, and by god, that’s what I got. Every writer knows that nagging idea that takes hold of your brain and refuses to piss off while you finish that other shiny project on your desk. This wasn’t going anywhere until I delivered, so I did. Perhaps a few too many characters, perhaps a few too-busy scenes for audio only. The important thing is, it’s out of my mind and I can reclaim headspace for a few other deserving projects.

Crowd-sourcing voice performances via the internet has its own rewards. The talent involved represents old friends, new colleagues, people I don’t know (yet). And it was fun to stitch together those elements of my life in one place. The drawback, of course, is that you sacrifice a good deal of control over audio quality when most of the actors are miles away–not nestled in your own, soundproof studio and using the same microphones. Given the size and disparate schedules of the cast, table reads were right out as well. But hey, I lucked into a great group of people who were quite talented and quite game.

Ah, copyright law. U.S. copyright law, in particular. Such an ungainly beast. I learned more about copyright law than anyone ever wanted to, in the name of keeping this legit. Did you know that no works published after 1923 can be safely considered in the public domain? How about that even if copyright has expired on a song, the actual recording of the song is still protected? And that’s just the beginning of the headache. (Even worse, there’s a ton of misinformation out there, mainly because copyright law confuses everyone. I started out using a 20s jazz collection the Internet Archive itself marked as “public domain,” but the recordings themselves technically are not free to use. Oops.)

TL;DR on that last paragraph, for those whose eyes have glazed over: screw U.S. copyright law and its war on the public domain. Ahem. Moving on.

Crowd-sourced sound effects rock. I knew early on I didn’t want to spend hours recording my own foley work, whacking a side of beef with a baseball bat during every fight scene. That’s where freesound.org comes in, a lovely and CC-licensed collection of sounds recorded by people from all over the world. Of course, I still spent lots of time blending them into soundscapes. But it was enormous fun piecing together a street in 1920s Emeryville using sounds from a Japanese market, a Polish bar crowd, beaches in Venezuela. Technology is grand sometimes.

I used to play in bands and learned audio recording the old, multitrack magnetic-tape way. E’ville also served as an excuse to finally wade waist-deep into modern DAW technology. The covers and original compositions for the series are all 100% sampled and sequenced. Perhaps not entirely period-appropriate–they drift from 40s lounge to 50s rockabilly at times–but I never claimed to know shit about Jazz Age composition. And hey, I collaborated with a singer in Istanbul on one track. Again, technology rocks.

Would I do it again? Perhaps, someday. But there’s a book that’s been fighting for gray matter real estate with this sucker, and its time has come.

Sleeper agent activated

So, it’s 2017. I’d rejoice at the end of the shittiest year in recent memory if not for the expectation that this one will only suck more. I’d dearly love to be proven wrong, but all signs point to being hours and hours from dawn.

Those who know me well will tell you I’m an agreeable person. (Well, most of them!) I abhor conflict and go out of my way to get along with whomever I can. But I can’t deny this year has broken something fundamental inside me. My faith that people are by and large inherently good? Gone. Whoosh. I’ll continue to seek out the good-natured and sympathetic–and they are still legion–but I now realize that decorum and civility are wasted on a growing number, and I won’t bother if not met halfway. Or even a quarter of the way.

I’ve resisted blogging about the election while I gather my thoughts, but I think enough time has passed that I can avoid hammering out a rage-induced screed. Doesn’t mean the anger has subsided. My disappointment in the human race extends beyond the impending Trumpocalypse, which appears to be but one symptom of a rising fascist tide across the globe. Now that a couple of months have passed, I’ve begun to figure out how to keep from immolating in anger. I’ve been catalyzed into action, because it’s too dangerous to look the other way. Nothing is normal about the relentless tide of racism, misogyny and disrespect now days away from our highest office. And I won’t accept it as normal. I simply can’t.

My plans are in flight, but I can tell you what to expect from here on out. I won’t be looking away when something really fucked up happens, simply because that’s the comfortable route. So, let’s try and salvage what we can from the coming months, shall we? If, like me, you’re searching for productive ways to restore normalcy, here are a few links I’ve found helpful. See you in the trenches.

Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry

A Yale history professor’s powerful, 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency

How to Defeat an Autocrat: Flocking Behavior

Elizabeth Bear on the Long Con

Surveillance Self-Defense


Escape Pod and beyond!

What’s this? I narrated a very fun story for Escape Pod: Captain Drake Learns His Lines by Amy Sisson and Kate Suratt. Give it a listen. This is my first foray into narration, and why not? Thanks to EP for the opportunity.

Much has been happening, though you couldn’t tell from this site. I’ve been devoting a lion’s share of my time to Unreliable Narrators, and the results have been rewarding to say the least. Today is our one-year anniversary, in fact, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how that’s progressed. Oh, and did I mention that I wrote and am in the middle of producing an eight-episode audio drama for UN? E’ville episode one is up now, with a new episode each Monday through the end of January. A ton of work, but I can’t say it hasn’t been an absolute blast, combining my interests in writing, music and audio engineering. Methinks more of this will happen at some point.

And then there’s matter of the recent election. Perhaps you’ve heard about it? I thought about posting an epic screed and decided others have covered most of those bases. Suffice it to say, I’m disappointed in humanity right now. Still formulating my response, though if you’re interested in specifics they’re covered pretty well in my interview with Desiree Burch–which you should listen to regardless, as she’s highly entertaining.

So yeah, I’ve been heard more than seen–or read–lately. I’m fixing to change that, however, for it’s back to the grindstone on my work in progress. Stay tuned for details.

I’m on a boat! Well, I will be.

oasis-of-the-seas-royal-caribbean-international-cruise-ship-photos-2015-06-07-at-labadee-haitiAhoy, matey! Somehow, that trip to the Caribbean that had been lurking in the dim future has crept up on me and begins this weekend! No idea how that happened. I’ll be on board the Oasis of the Seas for the 2016 Out of Excuses Writing Workshop and Retreat, hobnobbing with writers and podcasters and other industry types. Should be fun. Our trip includes excursions to the Bahamas, St. Thomas and St. Maarten–and even an on-board Prohibition party. It’s a rough existence.

Meanwhile, the Unreliable Narrators have been hard at work on new releases, and you should certainly go and check out our last few shows. October promises to be bigger and better as plenty of crazy things are planned which may or may not relate to that most glorious of holidays, Halloween. But first, ocean. Islands. Cocktails. Seeing old friends, making new ones. And maybe, just maybe, commiting some words to screen and keyboard.

See you on the other side.

DraculaFest: The Wrap-Up

I am the vinner!

I am the vinner!

Finis! Three months and thirty-seven films later, DraculaFest draws to a close. Yes, if I really wanted to draw this out I could likely squeak out at least a dozen more films. (Ever seen Ringo Starr’s Dracula musical? No? With good reason!) But I’m convinced I’ve found the gems, and I’m not enough of a masochist to sit through a dozen terrible movies on purpose. Savaging awful monster movies gets old, and we already have MST3K for that.

Here they are, all the films of DraculaFest in order of my own personal preference. Note that this order is not a strict reflection of the ratings I handed out as I watched. As time wore on and I gained more context, I decided I’d been a bit strict or lenient with a few of these flicks. None of the scores were way off base, but a few got bumped accordingly in either direction. And I left the original posts as-is, because hey, this is not Star Wars.

A few random discoveries and surprises:

– That’s a shitload of Dracula! I knew going in the character was popular, but I didn’t quite realize the extent to which this story had invaded pop culture for the past century. Every era boasts on-screen versions of the legend, from the 20’s into the 2010s. Residing in the public domain no doubt accounts for a lot of the activity. But the Count is also the quintessential Western villain: an exotic immigrant come to corrupt and destroy post-industrial culture, and a sensual creature preying upon one’s own desires and spreading his sickness through an unchaste exchange of bodily fluids. Tell me those fears are irrelevant to our times!

– Like disco, Dracula dominated the ’70s. 38% of the films in this list are from that decade. Over a third! Why? I have no idea. But the burnout was so severe that no one touched the Count again until Coppola’s ’90s revival, other than a low-budget misfire or two. Just as well. No one needs to see Dracula with a pink Izod or a skinny necktie.

– Avoid movies with increments of 1000 in the title. You have been warned.

– Congratulations to the Germans, who have proven they know their way around a monster movie. I suppose my preference for the Nosferatu films means I prefer a sinister count to the fanged Lothario of many other versions. Or maybe they’re just that damned good at filmmaking and have been since the silent era.

And now, a rest. Until I decide to start reviewing HK wuxia films or bildungsromans or something. (Is that how you pluralize bildungsroman?) Enjoy!

1 Nosferatu, the Vampyre
2 Nosferatu
3 Universal’s Dracula
4 Horror of Dracula
5 Dracula ’79
6 Drácula
7 Blacula
8 House of Frankenstein
9 Franco’s Count Dracula
10 Dracula, Prince of Darkness
11 Dan Curtis’ Dracula
12 Bram Stoker’s Dracula
13 NBC’s Dracula
14 BBC’s Dracula
15 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
16 Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
17 The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires
18 Dracula’s Daughter
19 Dracula Has Risen from the Grave
20 The Brides of Dracula
21 BBC’s Count Dracula
22 Dracula A.D. 1972
23 Love at First Bite
24 Taste the Blood of Dracula
25 House of Dracula
26 Young Dracula
27 Blood for Dracula
28 Dracula Untold
29 Dracula: Dead and Loving It
30 Scars of Dracula
31 Argento’s Dracula 3D
32 The Satanic Rites of Dracula
33 Son of Dracula
34 The Return of Dracula
35 Old Dracula
36 Dracula 2000
37 Dracula 3000

DraculaFest: Franco’s Count Dracula

This is the way DraculaFest ends. Not with a whimper or a bang, but with a middling, faithful rendition of Stoker’s book. Worse endings exist.

Saruman gets a haircut.

Saruman gets a haircut.

Count Dracula (1970) is Spanish director Jesús Franco‘s entry in the vampire sweepstakes. Given Franco’s predilection for more titillating fare like Vampyros Lesbos, the straightforward nature of this literary adaptation is a bit surprising. The film contains pretty much every classic beat from the familiar story: Jonathan Harker’s (Fred Williams) journey to Transylvania, the Count’s journey to England, his pursuit of first Lucy (Soledad Miranda) and then Mina (Maria Rohm), a final race against the rising sun. After three dozen Dracula films, the story contains few surprises.

The main attraction, and most interesting aspect, is the return of Christopher Lee as Count Dracula. After the stripped-down gore of the Hammer films, it’s strange to see Lee issue an alternate take on his most famous role. He speaks more dialogue in this film than in all the Hammer films combined; this Count is aged and deliberate, a foil of sorts for the snarling assassin of those movies. I’m glad to have the opportunity to see Lee do more with the role than inexplicably show up, kill a bunch of people, and inexplicably die. Also memorable–and similarly déjà vu-inducing–is Klaus Kinski as Renfield. Nine years later, Kinski would become the vampire himself in Nosferatu, the Vampyre; he’s well-suited to both roles. His Renfield throws food at the wall and smears it into abstract designs, keeps flies in a jewelry box lowered into the sewage system. Too bad Lee and Kinski don’t share the screen. The others fail to make an impression, including Herbert Lom as an indecipherable Van Helsing. Despite several creepy and effective scenes, a grab bag of silly touches–like an overblown soundtrack and laugh-inducing eye-zoom reaction shots–mar the atmosphere. It’s a serviceable outing, but slavish devotion to the story drains any suspense. We know where this is going, and it doesn’t prove us wrong.

Might want to get that looked at.

Might want to get that looked at.

Actually, a few low-budget quirks provide some amusement. Dracula’s collection of bad taxidermy growls at intruders. The count’s bat form only appears in shadow and resembles a Halloween decoration traveling on a clothesline. After chasing Dracula back to his lair, Harker and Quincey (Jack Taylor) forego the hammer-and-stake routine and simply set Dracula on fire inside his coffin, then dump said coffin over a castle wall like so much garbage. The End. What is it with Dracula movies and abrupt endings? It’s almost like these films are afraid they’ll fry at sunrise along with the Count himself. Despite the silliness, Count Dracula serves as a perfectly decent adaptation made worthwhile by the performances of Lee and Kinski. Of the Hammer catalog, perhaps only Horror of Dracula outshines this one due to an emphasis on story, however familiar. If you see only one Dracula film… let it not be this one. But it’s worthwhile if you have room for another. Count Dracula earns 1.25 out of two fangs out.

And with that, I’m hanging up my cape and plastic teeth. It’s been an interesting ride, but I’m good on Dracula for several oceans of time.

Next: The final verdict!

DraculaFest: The Hammer Sequels, Part 2

463827Scars of Dracula (1970): You may recall Dracula ended his last outing as a heap of ashes on a slab in his own hideout. Scars begins with a vampire bat flying in and dripping blood from its mouth onto Dracula’s remains, et voilà! He lives again! No, I didn’t leave anything out. As time wears on Hammer becomes less interested in the mechanics of storytelling and just wants to show Dracula killing people, dammit. Fair enough. This film also veers into Russ Myers-style T&A territory with brief nudity and sleazy innuendoes. For the third film in a row we have a young man named Paul (Christopher Matthews), a Lothario on the run from the local burgomaster after shagging his daughter. Some villagers try to burn Dracula’s castle, but his loyal bats invade the village church and kill their families while they are gone. Oh, snap! I guess religious iconography doesn’t bother the bats. Dracula kills Paul as he tries to leave the castle–for those keeping score, that’s Pauls 2-Dracula 1–and burns his servant Klove (Patrick Troughton) for attempting to save the lovely Sarah (Jenny Hanley). Several barely connected scenes later, Dracula pursues Sarah and Paul’s brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) outside during a thunderstorm, and is promptly struck by lightning and set on fire. The end. Random in, random out. A certified mess with a few decent scenes of carnage. .5 out of 2 fangs out.

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972): After six films in the vaguely Victorian setting of the novel, Hammer brings Dracula into the Swinging Seventies! At least we get a new time and place, which infuses some energy back into the series. A.D. serves as a reboot, informing us that Dracula was killed by Van Helsing in London’s Hyde Park back in 1872. Yes, Van Helsing. Peter Cushing is back, and not a minute too soon! We’re off to a sloooow start with a groovy but interminable dance party in swinging London. The story kicks in once vampire wannabe Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) talks his hip young friends into performing a Satanic ritual in an abandoned church. (Yes, they overexplain the ALUCARD=DRACULA thing just as much as Universal did.) Turns out he holds the remains of Dracula, as scooped up in Hyde Park by one of his ancestors, and spills blood on the remains in order to restore the Count’s body. One of the partiers is Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), granddaughter of the grandson of the original vampire slayer (also played by Cushing). Her grandfather pursues the kidnapped Jessica, defeating Johnny Alucard with a bathtub full of running water (!). Dracula and the hand-me-down Van Helsing face off in the final act, and the Count is dispatched with a knife and shovel set to incongruous funk music. Silly, yes, but at least it’s not another romp in that faux-German, anachronistic village of yore. .75 out of 2 fangs out.

hammer3The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973): Christopher Lee’s last outing as Dracula finds him still stuck in the Seventies (sorry, Count) and hobnobbing with Satanists. Part horror flick, part conspiracy thriller, part exploitation vehicle, all ridiculous. Peter Cushing returns as Van Helsing and gives one of his best performances in the role. Too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that legacy. Dracula remains absent for most of the running time, leaving Van Helsing to track down the cult enacting deadly rituals across London. Said rituals involve plenty of nudity, buckets of oversaturated blood and laughable overacting. Things pick up a bit once Dracula is unmasked as a mysterious businessman named Denham in a terrific and unusual office showdown with Van Helsing. Lee makes the most of his swan song with several great Evil Overlord monologues about his plan to spread an apocalyptic plague using the cult leaders as his unwitting Horsemen. Aha, so there is a tenuous connection between Dracula and all the silly Satanism. Unfortunately this film features what has to be the dumbest of the Count’s dumb Hammer deaths, stumbling into a hawthorn bush–which Van Helsing helpfully informs us is the bush used to fashion Christ’s crown of thorns. Van Helsing breaks off a nearby fence post and stakes the Count while he’s writhing around in a bush. The end. Despite a few great moments, Rites is an unsatisfying send-off for one of the most iconic Draculas in cinema. 0.5 out of 2 fangs out.

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974): I am happy to live in a world where Hammer Films collaborated with Shaw Brothers Studio, the legendary wuxia production house in Hong Kong. Legend is a crazy hybrid of English blood-and-guts horror and Hong Kong wirework martial arts. Neither house is known for engrossing plot work, but the action sure is visceral. Peter Cushing issues his last take on Van Helsing and turns the vampire hunter into a swashbuckling forebear of Indiana Jones. Alas, Christopher Lee is replaced here by John Forbes-Robinson. A Chinese shaman named Kah (Shen Chan) journeys to Transylvania to seek Dracula’s help in restoring the legendary golden vampires of his village. Dracula decides to take over Kah’s body and replace him as ruler of the Chinese village. Meanwhile, Van Helsing and his son Leyland (Robin Stewart) journey to China to hunt Eastern vampires. Nice coincidence! The doctor’s lecture attracts the attention of Hsi Ching (David Chiang), a descendent of the cursed village held in thrall by the golden vampires. After a perilous journey–with many king fu ambush scenes, natch–the entourage arrives at the legendary temple and defeats the vampires one by one. When only Kah remains, Van Helsing recognizes the voice of his old adversary and goads Dracula into revealing himself–so he can be chased and staked by the good doctor one last time. Strictly as a Dracula film this is pretty weak sauce. But it’s a fun romp with a unique blend of Eastern and Western tropes you won’t see elsewhere. Too bad Lee couldn’t have been persuaded to don the cape one last time, to complete the Hammer Dracula cycle. Watch it anyway. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Final thoughts: Hammer ruled the monster scene for over two decades, taking the crown from Universal and keeping it until the unprecedented resurgence of American horror in the late ’70s and ’80s. The influence of the Hammer catalog cannot be overstated. They envisioned a truly monstrous Dracula, not a charmer or romantic figure. Christopher Lee broke the dominant persona of Lugosi, transforming the Count into an embodiment of evil. That singular focus, however, limited the appeal of these films to pure mindless entertainment. Dracula’s increasingly preposterous deaths turned the vampire into an object of ridicule as more and more mundane household items were added to his list of weaknesses. Ignoring the silly storytelling, however, Hammer kept the Dracula myth alive during a fallow American period, and it’s likely the reason interest in the Count remains strong today.

Like Universal’s famous village, Hammer’s films exist in vague, anachronistic space and time. Ren Faire tavern wenches and King-George-era English nobles coexist in ersatz German towns. Continuity ebbs and flows, creating tenuous connections between films and then challenging them with inconsistencies. As pure escapism, however, the classic Hammer catalog provides many scares–and laughs. Just don’t think about it too much.

Next time: One last film! I thought I was done, but realized I neglected Christopher Lee’s sole non-Hammer role as Count Dracula. That won’t do! So it’s once more into the teeth.

DraculaFest: The Hammer Sequels, Part 1

Hammer Films followed up Horror of Dracula with eight other sequels throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Here’s my take on the first half of that creeptacular catalog.

Brides6The Brides of Dracula (1960): A better title might be The Brides of Some Other Random Vampire, for Dracula does not appear here and is mentioned as dead before it begins. The return of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing takes some of the sting out of Christopher Lee’s absence. Young teacher Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) finds herself without lodging and accepts an invitation from Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt). Marianne discovers the Baroness’ son (David Peel) shackled in another room and takes it upon herself to free him. Too bad the young baron is a vampire who uses the opportunity to kill his mother and embark on a biting spree in a nearby village. Bummer. Good thing Van Helsing arrives and runs into Marianne, who is clueless about the evil she’s wrought. Interestingly, Baron Meinster manages what Dracula never could and bites Van Helsing (!), who promptly cures himself with a hot brand and a sprinkling of holy water. Why doesn’t this work for any other victims? A harrowing chase ends as Van Helsing arranges the blades of a windmill into the shadow of a cross, which is more than the young vampire can bear. Hilarious. Dracula’s absence is keenly felt but, perhaps because of this lack of Drac, Hammer focused instead on story for once, and it’s not all that bad. Drags in the middle, though. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966): Christopher Lee returns! As does Horror of Dracula director Terence Fisher, which accounts for why it’s more stylish and tense than later outings. Out of the blue, Dracula has a servant named Klove (Philip Latham), who lures a group of travelers to Dracula’s castle in hopes of reviving the Count. Klove murders Alan (Charles Tingwell) and scatters his blood on Dracula’s ashes, reviving the titular vampire. His wife becomes supper as the other couple–Charles and Diana, I shit you not (Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer)–flee to a neighboring village. They seek the aid of Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a poor substitute for Van Helsing, and are betrayed by fly-eating Renfield stand-in Ludwig (Thorley Walters). The final battle results in another silly and unsatisfying end for Dracula as he falls through some cracked ice, because now running water also kills vampires. Of course it does. Next he’ll probably die by smearing peanut butter on his face. Despite the dumb and abrupt ending, this film stands up to the original Horror in ways the other sequels do not. Welcome back, Mr. Lee! 1.25 out of 2 fangs out.

dracula-has-risen-from-the-grave-the-first-stakingDracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968): Church workers discover the body of a woman hanging in the belfry, drained of blood. This can only mean Dracula has returned! Except he’s still frozen in ice from the last film, so he couldn’t have done it. Logic–who needs it? The local monsignor (Rupert Davies) climbs up to Dracula’s castle and performs an exorcism, sealing the door with a huge and gaudy crucifix so the vampire can not escape. Except he’s still frozen in ice down the hill, so he’s trapped outside instead. Oops. A silly accident breaks the ice and frees Dracula, who’s pissed that his castle has been sealed and embarks on one of his signature rampages. The priest and our young hero Paul (Barry Andrews) trap the Count and drive a stake through his heart. Except the movie conveniently updates the vampire death ritual to also require a prayer now, and Paul is an atheist. Wah wah. His lack of faith allows Dracula to survive and remove his own stake. Too bad Dracula ain’t an atheist, too, so none of this religious memorabilia would work on him, right? Hijinks ensue until the Count falls off a cliff and somehow lands on the gaudy crucifix from before, impaling himself right through the heart. Shades of Return of Dracula! The whole thing is hokey as hell, and Peter Cushing is sorely missed, but it’s more fun than a lot of the later Hammer joints. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970): A trio of bored old men leave their families at night and seek adventure in brothels and taverns. Sinister occultist Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates) appeals to their love of danger and enlists their help in resurrecting Dracula. Okay? They purchase the Count’s remains from a merchant who happened to show up as Dracula died and turned to dust at the end of Risen. (I guess the Monsignor and Paul just walked off and left him struggling on that crucifix?) Courtley drinks Dracula’s reconstituted blood and convulses on the floor. The old men freak out and have second thoughts–imagine that!–and beat him to death with their walking sticks. Somehow Courtley’s corpse turns into Dracula, who swears revenge on the old men. It’s an interesting premise even if it is rendered ineptly. The men are themselves so heinous to their families that Dracula becomes a sort of avenging antihero; you may even cheer as one or two them get taken out, crossed off Dracula’s to-do list. (“The first!” “The second!”) Drac leaves most of the killing to young lasses in his thrall, including Alice (Linda Hayden), the daughter of the most psychotic of the old men. A young man named Paul (Anthony Higgins)–déjà vu, but no, this is apparently not the young Paul from the last film–decides to decorate Dracula’s lair with church memorabilia. The Count returns home, freaks out over all the religious paraphernalia, and promptly turns to dust. What? Anticlimax of the century. The potential of the premise drifts away in the second act much like vampire remains in a stiff wind. .75 out of 2 fangs out.

Next time: Hammer’s back half, in more ways than one.

DraculaFest: The Universal Sequels

I decided I couldn’t close out DraculaFest without revisiting the many movies both Universal and Hammer Films pumped out in the wake of their respective Dracula successes. To that end, here are some quick takes on the remainder of the output of these two studios. Today it’s Universal!

draculasdaughterDracula’s Daughter (1936): This direct sequel to the classic Universal Dracula is, surprisingly, Lugosi-free. It picks up right after the first film with Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, the only returning actor) accused of murder. Gloria Holden gives a memorable and unsettling performance as Dracula’s daughter, Contessa Marya Zeleska, fighting her own vampiric nature to no avail. Irving Pichel steals the show as Sandor, the Countess’ sardonic servant, who never misses an opportunity to voice his disapproval. A thoroughly unnecessary screwball romance between two side characters derails the suspense a time or two, and the Van Helsing plot goes nowhere at all, but Zeleska and Sandor make a fun duo. Not quite a classic, but worth it for any fans of Universal horror. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Son of Dracula (1943): Boring! I’m not sure why it’s called Son of since the main character appears to be just, erm, Dracula. He’s cleverly masquerading as Count Alucard, because that’s DRACULA SPELLED BACKWARDS! Get it? Wink, wink. This is reiterated time and again in case you don’t figure it out. Dracula has become a grifter who marries an heiress so he can run her Southern plantation, Dark Acres. Why? So he can leave the Old World to live in a “younger, more virile” country. Proto-‘Murica, y’all! Lon Chaney, Jr. cuts a lackluster figure as the Count and should stick with Larry Talbot. We don’t get to see Dracula insinuate his way into Southern society, or seduce Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) for her sweet digs; we only witness the aftermath and watch people standing around talking about it incessantly. A few moments spark interest, but then we’re back to the melodrama and contemplating fast-forward. Watch only to avoid election coverage. 0.5 out of 2 fangs out.

house_of_frankenstein_002House of Frankenstein (1944): This is more like it–the type of film Universal horror does best, ticking all the boxes. Mad scientist and sniveling assistant! Cursed monsters and the women who love them! Villagers with torches and pitchforks! Insane plots best left unscrutinized! Boris Karloff eschews the monster role to play Dr. Niemann, the latest in a string of mad scientists trying to carry on the work of Victor Frankenstein. He concocts a preposterous plan to punish his enemies by resurrecting various monsters to do his bidding: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman. It goes about as well as you’d expect, with a final, frenzied orgy of revenge that sees all of the characters kill each other off. Makes little sense, but who cares? Pure cinematic fun! J. Carrol Naish is Daniel, a Notre Dame-like hunchback who pays a steep price for beating a (not quite) dead horse. In strictly Dracula terms, it sure ain’t the Count’s finest hour. John Carradine does little with the role, and Dracula gets offed like a chump in the first reel, never to return. Lon Chaney, Jr. reverts to the Larry Talbot role and proves he should stick with fur over fangs. The only slight disappointment is the lack of a proper dust-up between the three inconic monsters, but it’s plenty of fun anyway. Too bad Drac gets such a poor showing. 1.5 out of 2 fangs out.

House of Dracula (1945): These sequels sure have a template, don’t they? A direct sequel to House of Frankenstein, this one follows Dracula’s attempts to be cured at the hands of Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens). John Carradine returns as Count Dracula and once again leaves little lasting impression. As before, Dracula gets taken out early, like a chump (in his own movie! And in the same way!), though he does last a bit longer this time. Again, Chaney’s Wolfman takes center stage and proves he’s the Casanova of this troupe with another romantic subplot. And again, Glenn Strange‘s Frankenstein Monster comes to life at the very end and wreaks havoc until everyone dies. Except for Larry Talbot, who is cured of lycanthropy and becomes the only Universal monster to receive a happy ending! The hunchback this time around is a female nurse named Nina (Jane Adams) who believes Dr. Edelmann’s promise of a cure–again, in vain. I’m not sure which is more disturbing, the endless supply of hunchback lab assistants or the correlation made between deformity and monstrosity. As with the last film, the monsters never really meet and just carry on parallel plotlines. Is it so much to ask for an honest-to-goodness monster brawl? No Karloff this time, and he’s sorely missed. Not as much fun warmed over again, but there’s an undeniable glee anytime this many horror icons appear in one film. 0.75 fangs out of 2 fangs out.

Annex-Abbott-Costello-Abbott-and-Costello-Meet-Frankenstein_01Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948): Today it’s easy to forget how the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello dominated the box office throughout the ’40s. This is the first of their Meet series and, despite the title, includes the entire trinity of Universal horror. Once again Frankenstein receives top billing even though the film is largely about the struggle between Dracula and the Wolfman. (No, I’m not gonna touch the whole “the monster is not Frankenstein” argument. This is a Dracula review, and I don’t have a horse in that race.) Bela Lugosi returns as the Count for the first time since the original; it’s also the last, barring a few cameos. Though hammy and theatrical, his is the iconic Dracula performance, and it’s nice to see him return–if only for a comedy. Abbott and Costello perform their usual shenanigans, mostly revolving around myopic vision and misunderstandings. Lon Chaney, Jr. provides great physical comedy as the Wolfman, culminating in a dive off the balcony to seize the Dracula-bat in mid-air! We finally get to see these classic monsters interact a bit, as Dracula controls the Frankenstein monster for much of the running time, and Larry Talbot decides to try and stop them for some reason. It’s a fun romp without much sense to it, which is what you’d expect from this type of flick. It’s the last we see of these icons for a while, and a serviceable send-off at that. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Final thoughts: I’m not sure why Universal plays musical chairs with the creature actors in these sequels, but it makes for confusion and inconsistency. Five movies, four different Draculas. And Karloff playing a random scientist opposite the monster he made famous? Why? Despite this, the background players remain strangely consistent. Lionel Atwill plays a police inspector in five of the Universal films, each the same basic character but with a different name. Where exactly is this village that always becomes the center of monstrous disruptions? Villagers in lederhosen, British-style bobbies, and lots of American styles and accents. Welcome to Warnerland!

After jump-starting the Universal Monsters franchise, Dracula quickly takes a backseat to the likes of Frankenstein and the Wolfman. He never quite achieves the heights of his original outing. Still, there’s an undeniable sense of fun in the Universal ouevre, a trait sorely missing in most horror. We remember them fondly with good reason. As a whole these films represent lightning in a bottle, never recaptured again.

Next time: Please, Hammer, don’t hurt ’em!

DraculaFest: Old Dracula

From one end of the spectrum to the other. BBC turned Dracula into an adolescent schoolboy who just wanted to play well with others. Makes sense that someone else would experiment with turning Count Dracula into an aging, lecherous creeper. And you know what? Someone did!

Raincoat optional.

Raincoat optional.

Old Dracula (1974) features David Niven, of all people, as a dirty old vampire–Hugh Hefner with fangs, if you will. A thoroughly Seventies concept, and one that should remain in that decade. Let me just declare up front that this film has finally cured me of watching random Dracula films. I’m planning a handful of summary posts to pick over the numerous sequels from Hammer and Universal, and we’ll leave it at that. Let all unknown quantities remain unknown, for this film proves that Dracula has been done to un-death. That said, let’s strip the flesh from this carcass.

It’s the Swinging Seventies, and spry old Count Dracula trades on his infamy by hosting groups of tourists at his castle, celebrating vampire kitsch. The kicker? The Count’s a genuine bloodsucker and he extracts blood from tourists to fuel his own experiments. He and his servant Maltravers (Peter Bayliss) seek a perfect match to transfuse the Count’s comatose wife, who has been laid low for decades by blood from an anemic peasant. A transfusion from a black tourist transforms the Countess into a black woman named Vampira (Teresa Graves)–because yeah, that’s exactly how blood works. This development leads to a predictable litany of racist humor right up until the final frame. Go, Seventies. Vampira is done with sleeping and wants to go out disco dancing, but the Count is a wet blanket despite (or perhaps because of) ogling Playboy centerfolds at every opportunity. Woohoo, Seventies. Dracula enlists a young tourist named Marc (Nicky Henson) to collect new blood samples from nubile lasses in an attempt to restore Countess Vampira to her white skin color. Oof. Several incomprehensible developments later, Vampira bites Dracula and turns him black, too, so they can fly off to Rio in time for Carnival. No, I’m not making any of this up. Drugs, bare breasts, psychedelic music, David Niven in blackface. You know whether this is your decade or not.

Like shooting fish in a coffin.

Like shooting fish in a coffin.

I’ve commented before on Seventies films and their language and attitudes. Some find them offensive while others feel they’re refreshingly honest. I consider them an awkward mixture of the two, and too self-conscious to be enjoyable. Not that there’s much to like here sans offensive humor. British director Clive Donner and writer Jeremy Lloyd truly laid an egg with this one. Niven slums his way through the material with some charm, but no explanation is given as to why the Count is elderly. I expected some sort of comment on ageism, but the main reason appears to be that David Niven was somehow blackmailed into taking the role, so Dracula became elderly. The film’s never bad enough to merit enjoyment, it’s just bad without qualification. Skip. If you jones for some Niven, go find a Pink Panther film instead.

And with that I’m closing the door on random Dracula movies. I’ve seen enough duds in a row recently to convince me we’ve found the gems and are left with coffee grounds. I plan on blasting through the various Hammer and Universal sequels before driving a stake through this project, but otherwise we’re ready for sunrise.

Old Dracula squeezes out 0.25 out of 2 fangs out. Pulse is dropping rapidly.

Next up: The sequels!