Sunday, October 27, 2013

Zoltan... Hound of Dracula (1978)

... aka: Dracula's Dog
... aka: Hound of Dracula, The
... aka: Satan's Dog

Directed by:
Albert Band

In Romania, a group of soldiers uncover the Dracula family's 19th Century underground burial tomb. A tremor occurs, two of the crypts open up and a coffin slides out of one of them. The one guard posted on duty opens it up, unwisely removes a stake from the heart of whatever's inside and suddenly a dog leaps out and goes right for the jugular. Now with him out of the way, Zoltan the doggie has his very own flashback to a simpler time with his owner Veidt Smit (Reggie Nalder) before Count Igor Dracula (Michael Pataki) transformed into a bat and put the bite to him. The bloodsucking pooch then pulls the second coffin out, knocks off the lid, removes the stake and resurrects Veidt, who immediately informs him that they "must find our new master." Veidt isn't a vampire himself and has no cravings for blood; he's only a resurrected servant to the family and will stop at nothing to get Zoltan back to the last living descendant of the family. Veidt and Zoltan manage to sneak out of the tomb undetected. Vampire expert Inspector Branco (José Ferrer) shows up to investigate the death and empty coffins and is assigned by his superior - Major Rachel Hessle (Arlene Martel) - the task of hunting the two down.

As a child, Michael Dracula (also played by Pataki) was taken all the way to America to live a normal life. His name was changed to Michael Drake, he's oblivious to his past and he's now a happy, normal, middle-aged suburban husband with two children living in Los Angeles. Planning a quiet camping trip away from the big city in their RV, Michael's wife Marla (Jan Shutan) talks him into letting their children - Linda (Libbie Chase) and Steve (John Levin) - bring along their two German Shepherd's and their litter of puppies on the trip. Veidt and Zoltan, who've already arrived in the States via boat and have managed to get their hands on a Hearst, follow close behind. It doesn't take long until their peaceful vacation gets weird. Zoltan vampirizes one of the puppies, who is found dead but later comes crawling back out of its grave. Zoltan turns another dog he comes across into a follower as well, and both dogs manage to sneak into the RV and attack. After putting both of the family's German Shepherd's under his spell, Zoltan now has an army of vampire dog followers to help him achieve his main goal: turning Michael into a vampire that both he and Veidt can serve.

Inspector Branco finally flies in armed with a bag full of wooden stakes, tracks the family down and explains things to a reluctant Michael. It doesn't take too long to convince him of what's going on, especially after Linda is bitten and almost ripped to shreds by the dogs. Michael then sends his entire family back to town while he and Branco stay behind in the woods to hunt down and destroy Veidt and all of the dogs. A hiker is attacked and killed, there's a lengthy attack on the fishing cabin where Branco and Michael are staying where the dogs bust their way through windows, the door and even chew through the roof and the climactic stand off has our hero being attacked while in a convertible.

Killer dogs were a hot commodity in the late 70s and early 80s thanks to the devil dog sequences in the big hit The Omen (1976). Zoltan (also released as Dracula's Dog) joins the ranks of Slaughter (1976; aka Dogs), The Pack (1977; aka The Long Dark Night), the made-for-TV movie Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978), Play Dead (1981), Dogs of Hell (1982), Mongrel (1983) and many others in this cycle. It's slightly better than most in this category thanks to the novel vampire angle (which sounds [and sometimes is] silly but is played relatively straight here), well-choreographed attack sequences (thanks in large part to the animal training skills of Karl Miller and Lou Schumacher), reasonable production values, a professional cast and the general filmmaking competence on display. Andrew Belling provided a good (though very 70s) music score, Stan Winston was in charge of the makeup effects and Richard Band (who'd compose most of the scores for Albert and brother Charles' later films) was the assistant production manager.

The cast also includes Simmy Bow and JoJo D'Amore as a pair of fishermen who get in the middle of things, Roger Pancake as the sheriff (spelled "Sherriff in the end credits), Al Ferrara as a deputy and future director Dimitri Logothetis (SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK) as a soldier. Many of the actors had already appeared in the Band-produced dwarf comedy Little Cigars (1973) and the gloomy Pataki-directed MANSION OF THE DOOMED (1976). Writer and co-producer Frank Ray Perilli also helped write Cigars and Mansion, as well as the Band sci-fi productions End of the World (1977), Laserblast (1978), the Band soft sex films Cinderella (1977) and Fairy Tales (1978) and the hit ALLIGATOR (1980). The DVD release is through Anchor Bay.


La nuit de la mort! (1980)

... aka: Griffes de la mort, Les
... aka: Night of Death!

Directed by:
Raphaël Delpard

Don't let the generic title (La nuit de la mort! = "Night of Death!") keep you from watching this odd and highly entertaining French import; finally available in America with English subtitles from Synapse (who released a nice-quality but bare-bones DVD in 2009). Serge (Michel Duchezeau) wakes up to find a letter from his young girlfriend Martine (Isabelle Goguey) on the kitchen table. Tired of their arguing and feeling burdensome, she's taken off to start a new job as a maid and cook at a retirement home called the Deadlock House. The entire community is surrounded by a tall iron fence kept locked at all times by the limping, depressed handyman Flavien (Michel Flavius). Arriving a day earlier than she was scheduled to, Martine meets her new boss, the glamorous though extremely bitchy Hélène Robert (Betty Beckers), who admires initiative but hates excessive zeal and explains that as part of accepting the job, new hires are not allowed to take phone calls or leave the grounds for their first two months. That's about how long fellow housekeeper Nicole (Charlotte De Turckheim) has been working there and she's looking forward to a day away from the madhouse to reunite with her boyfriend. It's too had she won't live to see him.

The small group of elderly boarders living there (seven in total not including Hélène) appear to be either extremely eccentric or completely senile. Jules (a terrific Michel Debrane), usually seen with a ball of yarn and needles in hand because he's "knitting revolution," is obsessed with war and Nazis and keeps proclaiming that the very old and children (the "useless" and "forgotten") are going to eventually revolt again everyone else. Léon (Jean Ludow) - who's not paralyzed - rolls around in a wheelchair simply to annoy people and is constantly playing pranks and picking fights. Pascal (Georges Lucas) just wants someone to cuddle with and the ladies just jabber on and on about the good old days. Yes, they're all a bit batty, but the younger handyman may be the battiest of all. Flavien constantly hides out in the boiler room house and sulks, sometimes whips the misbehaving old folks with a lash, seems obsessed with his own ugliness and constantly asks the young ladies hired to work there the rhetorical question "Would you marry a man like me?" Aside from being highly secretive and never divulging their age, everyone has something else unusual in common: they all claim to be strictly vegetarian and monitor their calorie intake very carefully. So just how do they get iron in their diet? While Martine enjoys her last night of freedom away from Deadlock House, we find out.

Nicole, who's thoroughly hated by everyone there, is fast asleep when all the old people quietly file into her bedroom. They pick her up, carry her upstairs, rip off her nightgown, lay her out on a table, cut her throat with a meat cleaver and then slice her open and begin feasting on her (raw) internal organs and blood. Each get just a small piece periodically - one body has to last them two months - and they do this to stay among the living. Hélène, a bitter former beauty queen, singer and pianist who's actually 114 years old - started their little group many years earlier, so she gets the most potent piece: the heart. Unbeknownst to poor Martine, she's being prepped for slaughter herself with special calorie-rich drinks to keep her insides clean and healthy whilst fattening her up a bit (which will instantly bring to mind Mia Farrow getting her Tanis root shakes from elderly Ruth Gordon in Rosemary's Baby). Oh yes, and there's also a psycho stalking the area known as "The Golden Needle Killer," who's been spearing young women through the heads and necks and then raping their corpses. It may be Flavien, but then again, maybe not.

Though not without faults (the eternal life through cannibalism aspect isn't elaborated upon at all) and not terribly original either, Night of Death! still has lots of great stuff to offer. It's nicely scored and photographed, strongly builds up the sense of intrigue and suspense during the first hour, has some juicy gore (hands reaching inside a torso fishing for organs and such) and mostly excellent performances. Beckers is particularly good in her role and proves to be a great singer as well during several musical interludes. On-target casting and some superbly lit and cleverly off-centered shots effectively transform the otherwise normal-looking elderly actors into creepy and sinister figures. The fact they're all given little humorous quirks adds a blackly humorous angle to the film and most of the dialogue is surprisingly well-written. Goguey, in one of her only known roles, is not only very pretty but also extremely appealing in the lead role. Thanks to her likable natural charisma and the scripting, her character seems better fleshed-out than usual for the genre, which helps us feel invested in the material.

All that said, it's a shame this falters a bit at the very end. Though it throws a few twists our way, there's so much going on in the last 15 or so minutes that is becomes rather messy. Why the wily old timers, who've been successfully doing what they do for a very long time, would suddenly get so sloppy (leaving the heroine in a room alone with an axe conveniently on hand when they had ample opportunity to kill her [she was knocked unconscious]) doesn't really ring true either. Things lead up to a resolution that I personally felt torn about. Though it's genuinely surprising and I didn't see it coming, it also feels cheaply grafted on solely to provide a last-second jolt. Eh, whatever. Screw it. Watch this one, anyway. It's quite good.

Director Delpard also made the genre film Clash (1984), which is impossible to find here in America. Associate and executive producer Claude Pierson had previously directed the De Sade adaptation JUSTINE DE SADE (1972).

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