Friday, February 5, 2016

Oddball Film Report: DRACULA A.D.2015

   It's a given among horror movie fans that vampires have lost a lot of their stock in recent decades. From figures of evil corruption, vampires have become power-trip fantasy figures for troubled teens. In recent years, they've become outright romantic figures targeted at pre-teen girls. For the classic cinemanaut, however, vampires are monsters. 

    The last really great vampire movie (not to say there haven't been a handful of decent ones produced since) was a product of the 80's. FRIGHT NIGHT (not to be confused with 60's monster movie NIGHT FRIGHT) was the tale of a teenage boy convinced that his new neighbor was one of the undead, and enlisted the help of has-been horror-star-turned-television-horror-host Peter Vincent (the last great role of acting legend Roddy McDowell) to put the monster back in his grave. An affectionate homage to the classic vampire movies of Universal and Hammer, the film retains a huge cult following to this day. (A less spectacular sequel followed, and in recent years was subject to a typically miss-judged remake.)

   For decades now, fans have been lamenting the fact that the genre has seemingly been taken over completely by brooding teens and erotic "horror" novelists. The occasional stab at a more fearsome interpretation has been, at best, weak tea.

   If Hollywood isn't going to provide a decent vampire movie, however, Joshua Kennedy will. In fact, he has already. Though available only as a YouTube feature, DRACULA A.D.2015 is easily the best vampire movie since FRIGHT NIGHT. It's because of this internet availability that I at first neglected reviewing the film. I've since decided, though, that any publicity the picture can get, it should get.

   Mr. Kennedy's vampire movie is, in whole, an original work. It is, however, composed of parts from various Hammer favorites, and in fact even uses the music from those earlier pictures. The stock music cues, in addition to some wonderful location photography, gives the picture a nice professional sheen. (Unfortunately, it's also what keeps the film making any money for it's creator. On the other hand, it's about the best pitch reel a director could ask for.) 

   As the title would indicate, this is basically Kennedy's version of DRACULA A.D.1972, and it hugs that film's basic plot rather closely. Rather than a tired re-tread, however, the film uses it's foundation as a springboard to a modern adventure which is surprisingly fresh. If it falls short, it's mostly in it's reliance on re-creating scenes and dialog from earlier Hammer episodes (which, given the target fanbase, could be considered a point in it's favor). The picture works best when it isn't directly quoting from an earlier flick, although the assembled parts are stitched together quite nicely.

   The story concerns the relationship between the learned Professor Fordyce and his young sister, Jennifer. Jennifer has been living in the States for the last two years, and is now attending New York's Pace University. Prof. Fordyce has just been brought onto the University staff as a theology teacher.

    The opening of the film concerns the discovery of slaughtered female student, and during his introductory lecture, Fordyce is questioned about this. Seemingly a cult murder, it indicates something horrifying is about to happen. The students fail to notice -or outright ignore- this omen and some of Jennifer's friends convince her to attend a seance held by their councilor -the creepy Miss Stensgaard. 

   Stensgaard is a disciple of Dracula, and plots to return the Count to the world of the living. Jennifer is central to her, and Dracula's, plan, but manages to avoid being a direct participant in the unholy ritual. Though the bulk of the kids make tracks when the scene turns weird, blood is spilled and Dracula is soon walking the streets of New York. 

   As Jennifer's friends begin turning up dead, Fordyce starts to realize the terrible evil that has been unleashed....

   Oddly, the overall feel of the film has more of an 80's vibe than one might think, possibly due to the number of urban monster movies that decade produced.

   Again, while mostly built from parts of earlier Dracula movies, the resultant feature is quite fresh. The young characters are largely more likable than the rebellious hipsters found in the 70's version, and the sibling aspect of Fordyce and Jennifer makes for a more interesting relationship than the more parental set up of DRACULA A.D.1972. Rather than two points of view hopelessly out of phase, these characters have a more mutual respect for each other. That really aids in the dramatic appeal once things become hairy.

    Dracula stalks the streets of New York, seeking Jennifer to be his latest bride. This potentially thread-bare concept instead has a certain vitality. And fortunately for Jennifer, and the world, Fordyce just happens to be on hand -he being the only human being on the planet who knows what he's facing! Miss Stensgaard has obviously waited for his arrival before resurrecting Dracula. 

   On the surface of this, it appears she hopes Fordyce will be dead early on, thus eliminating Dracula's one real obstacle. On the other hand, Stensgaard badgers Dracula into giving her his special power. Likely she hopes to have the drop on Frodyce after he has been able to kill Dracula, leaving herself the remaining vampire. Unfortunately for her, she is first captured and introduced to the business end of a stake and hammer. 

   The film is filled with wonderful moments. Dracula's resurrection scene is marvelous, as is the reformed monster's first appearance atop a stairwell. A major plus is the film's use of rich color and real locations. As noted, these settings combine with the classic Hammer cues to create true professional sheen. New York, and Pace, become as much characters in the film as Fordyce and Dracula. 

   By and large, the cast is very solid. A different set of faces from those seen in Kennedy's Texas-shot features, his East coast cast is none the less distinctive. The majority of them have a very good feel for realistic reactions, even those played mostly to comical effect. Though a straight horror piece, the film does serve up some wonderful comedic moments. Very good timing with this group. 

    Joshua throws himself into the part of Terence Fordyce, obviously relishing every line and making the most of his moment to pay tribute to Peter Cushing. His sister Kat plays sister Jennifer, sweet every-girl swept into a parade of horrors. Particularly good are support male leads Cody Alvord and Jake Williams. As Ingrid Stensgaard, Bessie Nellis perfectly captures the feel of a recent transplant from Europe -one harboring a dark secret.

   "Xander Pretorius" plays Dracula, and he's the best cinematic vampire in a very long time. Obviously meant to evoke Christopher Lee, he has the required size, deep voice, and physical presence. He looks a lot like Jack Palance's Dracula, with a touch of Casper Van Dien in the face (with lighter hair, which nicely calls to mind David Peel in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA). Also important, he's a solid actor, convincingly selling the idea that he's been around the block a time or two. Given the actor's age, this is no small matter. I can only hope he gets to play the role again.

   I must put in a special mention for Traci Thomas, one of Josh's regulars. In a colorful character part -that of a domestic named Gerda, Miss Thomas is reliably hysterical. She really needs a sitcom. 

   Another note-worthy cast member is none other than Caroline Munro, who offers up a brief audio performance!

    Among the film's finer set-pieces is when Jennifer falls into Dracula's clutches. Entering an apartment and expecting to find her boyfriend, she instead finds one of her girlfriends has joined the legion of the damned. Flanked between this friend and the suddenly-appearing Miss Stensgaard, Jennifer is helpless as Dracula enters the hallway. In what may be the film's single best shot, the vampire women push Jennifer forward and melt into the shadows behind her.

    The film tries to pay homage to all of the Hammer Dracula films, and by extension some of the Universals. Janitor Thorley Ripper* manages to evoke both Michael Ripper and Dwight Frye, as his discovery of the first victim drives him into a fit of insanity which grows into dependence on his new master. (*Renfield-style cackling aside, a comparatively subdued performance from Jeremy Kreuzer, earlier seen as the mad bomber aboard AIRLINE '79 and as Andy Warhol in THE VESUVIOUS XPERIMENT.) 

   Stensgaard's ploy of becoming a vampire is borrowed from A.D.1972, but with it's female twist actually echoes SON OF DRACULA. One scene is a copy of a sequence from DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, in which Fordyce and some helpers stake a female vampire. Oddly, with it's modern setting, this more echoes the sadly under-seen 50's adventure THE RETURN OF DRACULA

    Of course, it's not all remembrances of vampires past. One of the film's creepiest moments happens when the newly-undead Miss Stensgaard appears outside the curtains of a showering girl student. We've seen this kind of scene before, but the shared gender adds to the successfully uncomfortable feel of the scene. An invasion of privacy to the ultimate extent. (Although, this could be considered a nod to THE VAMPIRE LOVERS.)

    If Anything falls flat, it's the climax. At the start of it, Kennedy stages an incredibly exciting chase/fight between Fordyce and Dracula that moves down into the subways of New York. The momentary struggle aboard a subway car is dynamite stuff. Back topside, Fordyce chases Dracula back to his secret lair to re-create the ending of HORROR OF DRACULA

   During the chase, however, is a poorly-judged re-creation of the coach scene from DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, complete with fast-motion footage. One can easily appreciate the effort that went into filming this sequence, but the horses involved are obviously only trotters. Looking past that, there's the fact that Christopher Lee looked ridiculous in Benny Hill Vision way back in '68. It seems so out of place here that it completely undercuts the otherwise dynamic sequence. (Sorry, Josh, but I have to be honest!) Admittedly, this sequence plays better in repeat viewings, though one still wishes footage of the sped-up, ever so casually trotting horses had been cut or altered in editing. 

   In the end, a worthy inheritor of the once-great name of Dracula. The vampire movie fans have been waiting 30 years to see is finally here. And it's only on YouTube. Check it out, and while you're over there you can take a look at AIRLINE '79, which features much of the same cast.