The Vampire Lovers

Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, Britain’s Hammer Studios were hitting it big with their string of horror films.  These films often featured gothic settings and many of the same classic monsters that Universal had made famous in the 30’s…Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy among them.  But Hammer’s versions were in color and always were a bit more graphic when it came to blood and gore.  As Hammer moved into the 70’s, they were able to push the envelope even more when it came to areas like nudity and sexual content…which leads us today’s movie, 1970’s “The Vampire Lovers.”

The film begins many years before the main story, with Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer), seeking to avenge the death of his sister, doing battle with a lovely blonde vampire.  Hartog, though he hesitates upon seeing the creatures beauty, quickly relieves her of the burden of having a head.

We then jump forward several years where we meet General Von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) and his daughter Laura (Pippa Steel).  Shortly after taking in a beautiful young woman named Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt), Laura begins to have recurring nightmares.  She soon becomes quite ill as well and only takes comfort in her visits by Marcilla.  When Laura dies, the General notices two strange puncture marks on her neck.  Well, they’re actually closer to her breast.  Right around this moment, Marcilla mysteriously disappears.

Marcilla soon shows up again, this time going by the name of Carmilla.  After she and her “mother,” the Countess (Dawn Addams), are in a carriage accident, she is taken in by Mr. Morton (George Cole) and his daughter Emma (Madeline Smith).  Of course, Emma soon starts to experience strange dreams and sickness as well.  Like with Laura, Carmilla has been visiting Emma’s room and attempting to seduce her.  Helping out is Emma’s governess Mme. Perrodot (Kate O’Mara), who has been successfully seduced by Carmilla and is now working with the vampire.

Some of the other house staff begin to become suspicious of what is going on while their master has gone away and left Mme. Perrodot in charge.  They begin to suspect that she is the vampire.  The doctor (Ferdy Mayne) begins to believe it too and he instructs that Emma’s room be filled with garlic plants.  Meanwhile, Mr. Morton meets up with the General, who has located Baron Hartog, to assist in battling the beautiful vampire.

“The Vampire Lovers” is the classic sort of Hammer Horror story.  Sexual aspects of the classic horror stories were always a bit more present in the Hammer versions, but with its hints of lesbian elements, this one goes a bit further than the others.  And, given that this was now 1970, the studio didn’t exactly shy away from nudity.  Unfortunately, these things are all heightened at the expense of the creepy atmosphere which is usually the centerpiece of most Hammer productions.  The opening and closing of the film come close, but for most of the film I just wasn’t feeling it.  Though, the strange vampire on horseback who always seems to be watching, but whose identity is never explained, is a nice touch of the classic Hammer mood.

Still, I liked most of the performances.  Peter Cushing is great, as usual, if a bit underused and Douglas Wilmer is good as the grizzled old vampire hunter.  As for Ingrid Pitt, well, if anyone was born to play a sexy female vampire, she’s it.  There’s no question here why she became such a horror movie icon.

“The Vampire Lovers” is an enjoyable enough film, but it’s just not quite what I want out of my Hammer.  I’ve often said that I think atmosphere is the name of the game for making a horror film work.  Hammer was king in that area.  I fear that they lost sight of that a bit with “The Vampire Lovers,” becoming a bit more concerned with showing skin than causing goosebumps to break out.

The Space Children

The sci-fi / horror movies of the 50’s used just about every kind of alien baddie you can think of.  There were giant insects, monster plants, you name it.  But 1958’s “The Space Children” has, perhaps, some of the strangest villains in B-movie history.  Are you ready for a glowing pulsing jelly bean that controls the minds of a small army of children?

The story takes place on a southern California military base that sits right on the Pacific coast.  Numerous families of scientists and researchers live in trailers just off the beach.  This brain trust has been gathered to work on a rocket called the “Thunderer” which will orbit the earth carrying a weapon with the ability to wipe out an entire city.  A new arrival to the base is the Brewster family, including their two young sons Bud (Michael Ray) and Ken (Johnny Crawford).  Things get weird for the family shortly before they arrive on the base, as the boys spot a strange light from the sky shining down on the beach.  This strange light also seems to have the ability to shut down the electrical system of the family car.

As the family settles in, Mom Anne (Peggy Webber) and Dad Dave (Adam Williams) get to know the neighbors.  Among them is the family of Dave’s co-worker Hank Johnson (Jackie Coogan…yep Uncle Fester) and another family with a violent, drunk stepfather (Russell Johnson…yep The Professor from “Gilligan’s Island”).  And, of course, there are lots of kids.  One night while Bud and Ken play with the other kids in a cave down by the beach, they spot a strange object.  As I said before, it looks like a jelly bean, but about 100 times bigger and growing.  The kids even get dad to bring it back to the trailer for a short time…well wouldn’t you?

Mom doesn’t care much for having slimy glowing thing in her house…er, trailer…so it’s taken back to the cave.  But by this time, strange things have started happening.  The Professor ends up dead after an encounter with the thing, a fuel truck loses control down near the beach, and when Dave tries to tell his superiors about the weird glowing booger, he ends up collapsing in a heap.  Soon they figure out that all these strange events happen in the presence of the children, who seem to be using some sort of telepathy.  So now, the powers that be start to worry that the ultimate goal may be to cause problems with the upcoming launch.

When I think about creepy kids in the movies, my mind goes right to “Village of the Damned.”  This movie actually came first, but it’s creepy kids aren’t all that creepy.  They just kind of stand and stare at things.  But I guess you can’t be all that creepy when you’re mind is being controlled by one of the dullest monsters of the 50’s.  This pulsing glob just glows and gets bigger.  I admit that the alien’s MO is kind of interesting.  I mean (spoiler alert) it ultimately is using violence to bring about its desire for peace.  It’s a hippie terrorist, which could’ve made for and interesting character.  But this alien isn’t a character, it’s a prop…and a poor one at that.

Though the kids are kind of blah, there are some fun moments from the adults…especially the two TV icons from “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Addams Family.”  Jackie Coogan’s encounter with the glowing space phlegm is fun in a goofy sort of way and seeing The Professor as a nasty drunk is a novelty in itself.

With a better alien, “The Space Chiildren” may have been a better film in the end.  As it is, fans of 50’s B-movie sci-fi will find things to enjoy, but most viewers may find it a bit boring.

The Hot Spot

In some of my past reviews, I’ve talked about some of the young actresses I had crushes on during my teenage years.  I admit, there were several, but I think Jennifer Connelly probably topped the list.  After all, I had first seen her in Jim Henson’s 1986 film “Labyrinth.”  I’ve mentioned before that I’m a puppeteer…so seeing this cute girl who was the same age I was in a movie with a bunch of puppets was like heaven for me.  But by 1990, Connelly left the puppets behind and moved toward steamier material, appearing in noir-ish film directed by the one and only Dennis Hopper…1990’s “The Hot Spot.”

The film centers on drifter Harry Maddox (Don Johnson) who comes to a small Texas town during the blistering days of summer.  Now there’s something about small Texas towns in the movies…even if they don’t have a huge population, they always have at least two key things: a used car lot and a couple of hot women.  Maddox, ends up getting himself a job as a salesman at the used car lot.  Hot woman #1 is Gloria (Connelly), who works in the finance department at the dealership.  Hot woman #2 is Mrs. Harshaw (Virginia Madsen), wife of the lot’s owner (Jerry Hardin).

Mrs. Harshaw takes an immediate interest in Harry, and he doesn’t exactly fight off her advances.  Meanwhile, Harry starts to take a bit on an interest in the much younger Gloria.  She’s a sweet girl, but she seems to be hiding something…whatever it is, it has something to do with a local trailer park reject known as Sutton (William Sadler).  But even with two gorgeous women around, the thing that has most of Harry’s attention is the local bank.  He first visits the bank one day while a burger joint is on fire down the street.  This is when he learns that most of the bank’s employees are volunteer firemen, which leaves the bank pretty much empty during fires.  Plus, the recently installed security camera system is on the fritz.

It doesn’t take Harry long to orchestrate another fire that will give him the opportunity to rob the bank.  He even manages to make it to the fire and rescue a trapped man after having successfully robbed the bank.  After the robbery, he buries the loot in the ground and goes back to business.  Though the local sheriff (Barry Corbin) is suspicious of Harry, he has not enough evidence to charge him…especially after Mrs. Harshaw testifies that he was at the fire shortly after it started and couldn’t have robbed the bank.

Mrs. Harshaw now figures she’s got Harry in the palm of her hand, but Harry begins to spend more time with Gloria. He soon learns that Sutton has been blackmailing Gloria over nude pictures he snapped of her and her adopted “sister,” now deceased.  The photos do sort of paint the two as being an item.  So, now Harry steps in to try and stop Sutton.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Harshaw has plans of her own to eliminate her husband and claim Harry for herself.

The atmosphere is really what carries “The Hot Spot,” because there’s nothing terribly new and original about most of the story.  Look at the major elements of the story: Texas town, drifter/criminal, rich sexpot wife with an older husband, sweet but sexy other woman…is it me, or haven’t we seen all this stuff many times before?  This one may be a bit more explicit than some others we’ve seen (Virginia Madsen is somewhat fearless in this one), but ultimately the basic story is nothing new.

But, as I said, the atmosphere takes this film a long way.  You almost feel like you’re going to choke on the Texas air as you watch this thing.  The mood is aided big time by a fantastic bluesy soundtrack featuring the likes of John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis and Taj Mahal.  But ultimately, it’s the two lead actresses who really sell this one.  Both performances are very sexy, with Madsen playing the woman you love to hate and Connelly as the girl you can’t help fall in love with.  But then there’s Don Johnson.  His performance is not bad, but somehow it just doesn’t seem quite in tune with his leading ladies.

Though the film doesn’t really cover any new ground, director Dennis Hopper handles the material well.  It’s an interesting modern take on a film noir…and hey, it’s got Jennifer Connelly in it.  No puppets, but 1 out of 2 ain’t bad.

Sony Pictures Choice Collection New Releases – May 2012

The May new releases from Sony have popped up over at the Warner Archive site!

- Strange Affair (1944)
– She Played with Fire (1958)
– One Mysterious Night (1944)
– Drive-in (1976)
– A Close Call for Boston Blackie (1946)