Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Dracula père et fils (1976)

... aka: Die Herren Dracula (The Dracula Gentlemen)
... aka: Dracula and Son
... aka: Dracula padre e figlio (Dracula, Father and Son)
... aka: Pure, vampyyri, pure! (Bite, Vampire, Bite!)

Directed by:
Édouard Molinaro

Despite being mostly associated with Hammer Films in the UK, and British horror in general, Christopher Lee has an impressive and quite varied slate of international productions on his resume as well. Even when he was at his peak with Hammer, he was still simultaneously taking up jobs elsewhere, namely in Italy, where he carved out a niche for himself in their Gothic horror cycle, and Germany, where he did other genre films and took part in their popular Edgar Wallace cycle. That turned out to be a wise career decision on his part. By the mid 70s, Hammer was running into problems and horror films were on the downturn in the UK. Since Lee already had cultivated an international following, he didn't have to look hard to find steady work elsewhere. The late 70s saw him appearing in American, British, Canadian, German and Spanish productions, and he was also shooting numerous films in the Middle East and Africa around this same time.

Dracula and Son, a vampire-themed horror comedy, was one of several French productions he turned up in during the later half of the 70s. He'd already spoofed his own image to good effect in another, earlier vampire comedy called UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE (1959); a French / Italian co-production. Interestingly, his frequent Hammer co-star Peter Cushing also ended up headlining a French vampire comedy of his own called Tender Dracula (1974).

1784. A stagecoach rushing through a Transylvanian forest trying to reach their destination before nightfall breaks a wheel. Knowing it will take several hours to fix, a second stagecoach swings by and two of the ladies - noblewoman Marguerite (Claude Génia) and her nympho daughter Herminie (played by future director Catherine Breillat in a rare acting role and the same year she made the controversial and oft-banned A Real Young Girl) - decide to catch a ride with them. They don't even make it to the castle before the pale-faced stranger on board (Xavier Depraz) sinks his fangs into the mother's neck. Herminie becomes locked inside the castle grounds and is soon face to face with Dracula (Lee) himself. After he makes a grand entrance from behind a bronze statue of his likeness, Herminie passes out. Next thing we know she's moaning in ecstasy and having sex with a fully-clothed Lee (!) inside a coffin. After they finish, she hops out, runs over to the mirror and starts examining her neck. He assures her, "You will find no marks... I was extremely careful!

The girl's relief doesn't last long. "You are now the bride of the prince of the powers of darkness!," proclaims Lee. He'll now keep her prisoner in the castle until she can produce an offspring. Nine months later, she does just that, delivering him a son / heir he names Ferdinand, which finally makes her worthy of vampire bride status. Lee puts the bite to her, but the resultant creature is a weak, weepy, reluctant whiner of a bloodsucker. It then comes as no surprise that when he sends her out to claim her very first victim on her own, the whole thing backfires when she fails to make it back before sunrise and is reduced to a pile of ashes.

Five years pass and the vampire baby is now a spoiled little brat. He's fed blood in a baby bottle and rolls a skull across the floor to knock over the urn containing his mother's ashes while the sound of a bowling ball hitting pins is heard. He then has a laugh killing his old nanny by tricking her into going outside right before dawn and then locking the door. 116 years pass and the now grown Ferdinand (Bernard Menez) is a lazy, whiny, pale, mustachioed weakling who has thus far refused to claim a victim and is still using a baby bottle. 

Jump ahead to present day and not much has changed but the scenery. When some peasants and communist soldiers invade the castle to throw a party, Dracula and Ferdinand are forced to flee. They make their way into the nearest village, kill a couple of sailors and then try to stowaway in their coffins, hoping they'll be shipped back to France. Nope, they're instead dropped into the ocean.

Ferdinand's coffin ends up hitting shore in France, where he's immediately greeted by some violent xenophobes who get off on attacking "dirty immigrants." He befriends fellow immigrant Khaleb (Mustapha Dali) and the two hitch a ride in the back of a produce truck. They move into a derelict building with other immigrants and Ferdinand is eventually able to gain appropriate employment as a graveyard shift security guard. However, even there he's bullied and exploited by a personnel director using his illegal status to try to blackmail him out of his paycheck. Is this vampire comedy actually striving for a deeper sociopolitical meaning in between all the silly gags? It would appear so! No doubt that Ferdinand is facing the same hardships other Iron Curtain defectors possibly faced in other parts of Europe at around the same time and, sadly, some of this commentary is as timely today as it was back in 1976. Since he's still not worked up the courage to actually attack anyone, Ferdinand is reduced to raiding the local blood bank for nourishment.

Meanwhile, a disheveled-looking Dracula is caught in a fishing net and ends up in London, where his first victim is an inflatable sex doll. Weakened, he's having a hard time catching any prey until he's discovered by actress Anna Gaynor (Anna Gaël) and her movie director boyfriend, who immediately cast him as the Count in their vampire movie. He makes the mistake of vampirizing Anna and taking her home, where she proves to be a little too needy and codependent, so he promptly does away with her. Dracula becomes a huge movie star and starts making global news, which is how Ferdinand discovers he's still alive. He immediately travels to London for a reunion and the two are soon hitting the town doing heartwarming father-son things like casket shopping. 

As a celebrity, Dracula is now being courted by all types, including beautiful advertising executive Nicole (Marie-Hélène Breillat, Catherine's real-life sister and then-wife of the director), who wants him to be the new spokesperson for a brand of toothpaste (!) called Permadent. Nicole bears a striking resemblance to the count's first wife and he becomes romantically interested in her right away. Likewise, she's attracted due to his magnetism and commanding nature (plus, duh, he's Christopher Lee), which means her relationship with campaign designer Jean (Bernard Alane) gets pushed to the side for the time being. However, the lonely Ferdinand has also fallen in love with her, which is kind of weird seeing how she's a dead ringer for his mom, but what have you. This leads to jealousy, tension, sabotage and even murder attempts between parent and child that, thanks to the insanely childish and annoying behavior of the son, will probably have you cheering on Lee as he slaps the shit out of him multiple times and then booing during the conclusion.

The general consensus seems to be that this is bad, but I don't agree, at least when viewed in its original, uncut form. The story structure spanning centuries is pretty neat, with lots of little side characters filtering in and out of the vampires' lives over the years, some more interesting and / or amusing that others. The bits of social and political commentary were an unexpected surprise. The early period-set scenes have a lovely soft focus look to them and the art direction / sets and costumes are all good. Best of all, Lee gives a wonderful performance. There are actually more layers to his character here than he was given to play off of in most of his Hammer Dracula films. The multi-lingual genre icon's voice can be heard in both the French and English language versions.

There are definitely some problems here too, though. Things eventually deteriorating into a dull love triangle seems like a lazy cop out; as if the filmmakers didn't know quite where to go. While there are some clever and amusing moments sprinkled throughout, there really aren't many outright hilarious moments. I also found it almost impossible to care about Ferdinand, which is odd since I typically gravitate toward the black sheep / outcast characters. This guy is really that irritating. Furthermore, believing Nicole would be romantically interested in him is even less believable than when Caroline Munro agreed to go on a date with Joe Spinell in Maniac. To be fair, I did watch the English version and the congested-sounding voice actor for Ferdinand was damn near unbearable to listen to. I'm not sure if he's as bad in the French version, though even without the dubbing the character's actions are annoying enough as is.

Many prolific and well-known French actors appear in small cameos. Jean-Claude Dauphin plays student Christéa Polanski (obviously a reference to the director of The Fearless Vampire Killers), who's working on a graduate thesis entitled "The Existence of the Living Dead in Transylvania." Anna Prucnal (SWEET MOVIE) plays horror film actress Suzanna Podesti, whose cat gets eaten by Ferdinand, Raymond Bussières (THE CURSE OF BELPHEGOR) is a morgue cosmetologist, Robert Dalban (Dialolique) is a hotel receptionist, Gérard Jugnot (co-star of another French vampire comedy; The Crazy Boys vs. Dracula [1980]) is a blackmailing factory manager and Dominique Zardi (LITAN) is an agent.

Just two years after this, Molinaro would hit the big time with the comedy La cage aux follies (1978), an adaptation of the 1973 play by Jean Poiret. The film was a runaway financial success across Europe and even in the United States, where it quickly became the highest-grossing foreign language film up to that time (even over four decades later it's still in the Top 20). In addition, it earned Molinaro a pair of Oscar nominations, including for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Two sequels followed and it later became the basis for the 1996 comedy The Birdcage starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, which was also a huge hit.

This was based on a 1974 novel called Paris Vampire by Claude Klotz. The book was later reissued numerous times to tie into the film by re-titling it Dracula père et fils and either reusing the same poster art or showing images of Lee on the cover. A soundtrack album featuring music from Romanian composer Vladimir Cosma was also released in 1976 on the Vogue International label.

The English dubbed version that was released to U.S. theaters by Quartet Films in 1979 was cut down by 20 minutes and completely butchered in the process. (I'm also certain this version is a big part of the reason the film has such a bad reputation in the first place). This same cut was given at least two VHS releases in the 80s, from Columbia Pictures and GoodTimes. It wouldn't be until 2016 when an uncut version was released by Sinister Cinema, who offered an English-subbed, French-language widescreen version. In 2022, Severin finally released it on Blu-ray fully uncut and restored with all available audio options and subtitles one would need. It's available as part of their release "The Eurocrypt of Christopher Lee, Collection 2."


Sunday, February 25, 2024

Making Contact (1985)

... aka: Contacto con el más allá (Contact with the Beyond)
... aka: Debiru doru (Devil Doll)
... aka: El secreto de Joey (Joey's Secret)
... aka: Joey
... aka: Joey, una storia meravigliosa (Joey: A Wonderful Story)

Directed by:
Roland Emmerich

Having lofty aspirations to become Germany's answer to Spielberg or Lucas, Roland Emmerich started out in his home country with smaller scale science fiction films. His first feature length effort fresh out of film school was The Noah's Ark Principle (1984), which didn't set the box office ablaze but did manage to turn a profit due to securing an international distribution deal on a budget of around 300 thousand U.S. dollars. Next up was this effort, which took a year and a half to complete and was budgeted at around 1.5 million. Like his previous effort, this sold well internationally (to 22 markets) and made even more money due to the director's decision to shoot the film in English and keep it tame and schmaltzy enough to secure a PG rating, thus netting an even wider audience. As for the critical response to the film, it was almost universally terrible; a recurring theme for the director. Not that he cared any. Emmerich would later go on record admitting that he only makes popcorn movies for mass consumption. That attitude would end up serving him well when he later segued into his big budget Hollywood career. 

Less than a decade after he started with his modest little fantasy / sci-fi films, he was "discovered" by Sylvester Stallone and then recommended to direct the popular Jean Claude Van Damme action vehicle Universal Soldier (1992). From there he made the uneven though successful sci-fi film Stargate (1994), which at least spawned a far superior TV series, and then was on to the alien invasion extravaganza Independence Day (1996), which ended up becoming the highest grossing film of its year despite not being very good.

The formula was all pretty simple: huge budgets, huge major studio marketing campaigns, casts filled with popular actors, expensive state of the art special effects and depictions of mass destruction, all pasted together with extremely hokey human interest drama. Audiences just couldn't get enough for awhile and he'd repeat the same routine with later films like The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC and 2012. However, the sheen would eventually wear off. Later "event" movies like the Independence Day sequel under-performed, while his last film as of this writing - Moonfall (2022) - was a certifiable box office bomb.

As someone who's not a fan of his Hollywood career at all, I actually went into this with my curiosity piqued at the prospect of seeing what Mr. 200 Million Budget could do with only a tiny fraction of the money he'd later become accustomed to working with. I didn't expect good, but I did perhaps expect moments of interest seeing someone with such big, expensive visions facing budget constraints. How will he overcome that? Will he overcome that? Let's take a look...

Grand, whimsical John Williams-esque music swells over the opening credits and then we're whisked off to a funeral. Laura Collins (Eva Kryll) has just lost her husband, leaving her to raise their 9-year-old son Joey (Joshua Morrell) all on her own. Later that night, while Joey is mourning his father, his toys seem to come to life, lights flash from his closet and a glowing red plastic phone starts ringing. Joey answers it to find his father on the other line. Or does he? When mom catches him under his blankets talking to his deceased father, she's mildly concerned but decides to just give it some time. Maybe this is his unique way of grieving. Joey makes the mistake of telling some of his classmates that he's still making contact with his dead dad, which makes him the target of a group of bullies led by Bernie (Matthias Kraus) and William (Jerry Hall).

At a nearby abandoned house, Joey finds an old, ugly ventriloquist's dummy in the basement. He cleans it up, takes it home and puts it in his bedroom. The dummy turns out to be alive, or at least possessed by someone and being animated, and also appears to be the root cause of all the supernatural events that have been occurring thus far. Somehow through all this, Joey picks up telekinetic abilities and is gifted the ability to move objects with his mind simply by willing it to happen.

The dummy soon reveals its true nature to Joey i.e. it's not just another harmless inanimate object in his massive toy collection. It goes "Blarrrrr!" in a deep voice and shoots lasers out of its eyes. It tries to kill his mom by flinging a knife at her and attempting to run her over with a car, shows him historical clips on a TV screen and tells him he hasn't actually been talking to his father all this time. Instead, he's been speaking to a famous former stage magician and ventriloquist named Jonathan Fletcher, who's been dead since the 1920s and had brought his stage prop to life via black magic. As for their motives, the dummy chimes in and says that he and the dead Fletcher want to "control" him. As for why, and what they plan on doing once they do, your guess is as good as mine. I couldn't make heads of tails of much of this, though it's kind of revealed toward the end that the dummy is the real issue, not the ventriloquist. Or something.

Joey does have a couple of helpful allies, including a friendly, pigtailed neighborhood girl named Sally (Tammy Shields), his dog Scooter and a super-intelligent miniature R2-D2 style robot named Charlie that can think for itself and even has feelings (!?) Concerned teacher Martin (Jan Zierold) starts showing up periodically to check on the boy and is set up as a potential love interest for the widowed mother, though nothing ever comes of this. Just like in E.T. where a huge swarm of government agents and scientists basically take over the family home, here a huge swarm of paranormal investigators, police officers and scientists take over the family home. While they're running tests on Joey, his bullies convene at the former ventriloquist's home and make elaborate plans to "rid ourselves of this menace." (What do they plan on actually doing? Killing him?) Instead, they become trapped inside while a supernatural manure storm hits, which somehow includes a toothy monster, a mummy and a giant fanged cheeseburger (!?)

This is a prime example of a filmmaker putting nearly everything he has into the technical aspects of a film whilst neglecting every other important thing in the process. This is a delightfully colorful and handsomely shot (by Egon Werdin) film, with expensive-looking art direction and special effects. It's actually impressive how the director and his crew are able to almost completely pull off the look and feel of a big budget 80s Hollywood production with meager means. That said, the visuals are about the only good thing going on here, unless you can have fun counting the endless blatant ways the director tries, and fails, to copy Spielberg's brand of "heartwarming" family friendly fantasy entertainment.

Undoing nearly all of the polish is an absolutely terrible screenplay, which is completely unable to generate any sympathy for its cardboard protagonists, fails to establish any kind of compelling, coherent plot, fails to come up with a satisfactory conclusion (there basically ISN'T a conclusion) and is filled with laughably awful dialogue, including giving the dummy a bunch of lame "funny" one-liners. Everything here feels soulless, heartless, charmless and derivative, as if every prior popular PG fantasy film was fed into some kind of malfunctioning computer and this got spit out.

Making matters even worse, the acting is horrendous. His decision to cast mostly amateurs simply because they spoke English results in across-the-board stone-faced performances and stilted delivery of nearly every single line of dialogue. Apparently all of the young "talent" were completely inexperienced kids that were plucked from a U.S. military base / school to take part in the film, though they don't really come off any worse than most of the adults. Not sure where they found the rest of these folks at but most never appeared in anything else ever again. I'm also not sure why they even bothered shooting in English since most of the actors ultimately got dubbed over anyway. The woman playing the mother, for instance, looks like she can actually act based on her reactions to various events but then she's given a monotone dub that ruins her entire performance.

You'd be hard pressed to find another film filled with as much product placement as this one, though I don't believe there were any kind of paid licensing deals going on here either. The director seems to have basically just used whatever he wanted to give this a more American appearance. The young star's bedroom is filled to the rafters with name brand toys and merch; Sesame Street, Star Wars, Smurfs, various Disney characters, Garfield, Pac Man, E.T., you name it. If kids were into it at the time, Joey definitely has it. This goes even further than that with a perplexing cameo appearance from Darth Vader himself. The kitchen is filled with products like Skippy peanut butter and Heinz ketchup. Their dog eats Alpo. All of this makes Mac and Me, which infamously features an entire musical number set inside a McDonald's and an alien sustaining itself with sips of Coca-Cola, look restrained by comparison.

In addition to directing, Emmerich also co-wrote the script, produced, did a lot of the special effects and even operated the camera at times. Most of the film was shot in Germany, but exteriors were shot in the U.S. because this is supposed to be taking place in Virginia Beach, which somehow also means we get gratuitous shots of Southwestern Bell pay phones and a Krispy Kreme shop.

From Cinemafantastique Vol. 16 #3 (July 1986)

There are a number of different versions available. The first is the original 101 minute version released in Germany under its original title, Joey. This same version appears to have been released throughout Europe. And then there's the heavily-cut, English language release called Making Contact. Over twenty minutes have been removed (having browsed through the longer version it doesn't appear you're missing out on much) and it features a different, inferior score. The cut U. S. release was briefly distributed theatrically by New World Pictures in 1986, then turned up on home video courtesy of New World Video later that same year. Anchor Bay distributed it on DVD and then Blu-ray duties were handed off to Kino Lorber. The latter includes both the original and cut versions of the film.

A little note here, my rating is entirely a reflection of the craftsmanship of some of the crew people, not a reflection of my enjoyment of the actual film. I actually hated this with every fiber of my being. It grated on my nerves nearly the entire time. It's obvious. It's insulting. It's dumb as hell. It's offensively cynical in how stupid it assumes its target audience is going to be. And it actually just pissed me off.

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