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Retro Review: IN SEARCH OF DRACULA (1975)

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IN SEARCH OF DRACULA 
(West Germany/France - 1975)

Directed by Calvin Floyd. Written by Yvonne Floyd. Cast: Christopher Lee. (PG, 82 mins)

Look, we all love the late, great Sir Christopher Lee and miss him dearly as we near the fifth anniversary of his passing, but having said that, it might've behooved him to perhaps turn down an offer every once in a while. For all his contributions to cinema and the number of classic films in which he appeared over a career spanning eight decades, I can't think of a beloved, respected actor who's also been in more terrible movies than Christopher Lee. In a worst-case example, had he been more discriminate in some of his choices, he might not have ended up in something called MEATCLEAVER MASSACRE in 1977. Granted, he didn't intentionally star in a movie with that title, but that's what happened when he agreed to shoot a five-minute onscreen introduction for an occult documentary that never came to be, prompting its producers to sell their footage of him to whatever buyers they could find who somehow possessed even less scruples. Who bought it? The makers of MEATCLEAVER MASSACRE, "starring Christopher Lee." In 1970, he agreed to play the small role of Dolmance, the master of ceremonies at a sinister Marquis de Sade club in a Jess Franco project that was based on de Sade's Philosophy in the Boudoir.  By the time the film was released, it was called EUGENIE...THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION and had an X rating in the US, with Lee claiming that after he finished his scenes and moved on, Franco inserted some lewd footage that made it appear that the actor was right there overseeing and leering at all sorts of disrobings and orgies. An outraged Lee felt so thoroughly betrayed by the duplicitous, unethical chicanery of Franco and producer Harry Alan Towers that he continued to work with both of them multiple times over the next 25 years.






Of course, Lee was most famous for playing Dracula in a series of Hammer productions from 1958 to 1973, plus once in 1970 for (checks notes) Jess Franco and Harry Alan Towers. After actually refusing to play Dracula in Hammer's quite entertaining 1974 horror/kung-fu mash-up THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, Lee was so fed up with being associated with the role and so desperate to establish himself beyond the horror genre and Dracula in particular that he agreed to...host IN SEARCH OF DRACULA, a documentary about the legacy of the character and its supposed foundation in reality. Directed by Swedish filmmaker Calvin Floyd, the German/French co-production was intended to be a project for TV but was picked up for US theatrical distribution by Independent-International, the drive-in and grindhouse outfit run by schlockmeisters Sam Sherman and Al Adamson. Speculative documentaries were a strangely popular phenomenon during this period, the craze dating back to the Italian "Mondo" films of the 1960s but getting a major second wind when the 1970 German film CHARIOTS OF THE GODS? became a huge box-office hit when it opened in the US in 1974. Over the next few years, these kinds of docs were popping up in mainstream theaters all over America, often from, but not limited to, the Park City, UT-based Sunn Classic Pictures, with titles like BEYOND AND BACK, IN SEARCH OF NOAH'S ARK, THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE, MYSTERIES FROM BEYOND EARTH, THE LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH, THE MAN WHO SAW TOMORROW, and any number of Bigfoot documentaries. With IN SEARCH OF DRACULA, just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), Sherman obviously saw a way to cash in on the speculative docudrama fad and even had a huge name like Lee to help sell it. Of course, it somehow played in theaters all over America and people actually paid money to see it.


What is IN SEARCH OF DRACULA? It's based on the best-selling 1972 book by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally, which purported that the legend of Dracula was rooted in historical fact, specifically on 15th century tyrant Vlad III, aka Vlad Tepes, aka "Vlad the Impaler," the three-time "Voivode" of Wallachia, a principality of Romania. He had a reputation for extraordinary cruelty and brutality, impaling his enemies both real and assumed on wooden spikes in acts that today would constitute genocide. Vlad descended from the Dracul line, the second son of his predecessor Vlad Dracul, aka "Vlad the Dragon." This is all fascinating info, and the book generated enough interest and publicity upon its release that Florescu and McNally made the rounds on all the talk shows, sitting down with the likes of Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, and Dick Cavett. The book--and its theory that Stoker based Dracula on Vlad the Impaler--has been largely debunked over the ensuing decades. When writing his novel Dracula, Bram Stoker didn't set out to necessarily make a literary correlation between Vlad the Impaler and Count Dracula--he merely co-opted the name, presumably because he liked the sound of it, and in his early stages of writing, the character was named "Count Wampyr."



Lee addresses much of this stuff--sans the subsequent debunking--in his role as narrator and host, with eerie accompaniment by a certain Bela Bartok composition that will sound familiar to fans of THE SHINING, but Floyd bounces all over the place with no clear hypothesis. Lee's distinctive voice makes him a great choice to narrate, but good luck following him as Floyd has him drift to Transylvanian customs and folklore; the atrocities of Elizabeth Bathory; a Romanian dance ritual to exorcise vampirism; some scientific info on bats, with black-and-white footage of a bat and a guinea pig; scenes of Lee from 1970's SCARS OF DRACULA; Lee in newly-shot footage as Dracula staring at and eventually biting a servant girl; a sequence where a guy does a re-enactment of a 1964 case study of an American named "Bill," who displayed signs of vampirism; Lee wandering around a courtyard dressed in a ridiculous Vlad the Impaler costume looking like a confused Rick Wakeman roadie; footage of silent movie "vamp" Theda Bara; some mention of the serial killer "The Vampire of Dusseldorf" accompanied by stills of Peter Lorre from Fritz Lang's 1931 classic M, which the case inspired; shots from Carl Dreyer's VAMPYR; and, for some reason, an entire section devoted to Mary Shelley's creation of her novel Frankenstein, complete with footage from Al Adamson's DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN, as inaccurate a representation of Mary Shelley as it is an example of competent filmmaking. By the end, after showing several uninterrupted minutes of F.W. Murnau's 1922 film NOSFERATU and having Lee talk about Bela Lugosi and show a long sequence of the future Dracula legend in the 1925 silent THE MIDNIGHT GIRL, where he's not a vampire but a sinister suitor to the heroine, it's obvious that Floyd is just pulling public domain footage out of his ass to run out the clock.


Some of this is clearly superfluous padding to get a TV documentary to feature length (certainly the case with the inclusion of the DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN footage, obviously provided by Sherman), but through the lens of present-day moviegoing, it seems absolutely unfathomable that audiences would pay to see this shit in the summer of 1975. Did it just benefit from JAWS spillover? "Oh, JAWS is sold out? Well, we're already out...what about this new Dracula movie with Christopher Lee?" Floyd would be further linked with both Independent-International (he co-produced Al Adamson's 1976 blaxploitation actioner BLACK HEAT for them) and the Frankenstein legend when Sherman released his 1977 film TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, aka VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN, a Swedish adaptation that suffers from budget-deprivation and is frankly boring as hell, but might be actually be the most faithful cinematic interpretation of Shelley's novel. It's also of interest for the presence of Leon Vitali as Dr. Frankenstein, just before he abandoned his acting career to become Stanley Kubrick's devoted personal assistant. Vitali became close friends with Kubrick while co-starring in 1975's BARRY LYNDON and had already made the decision to quit acting once he was finished with TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. He even asked Floyd if he could shadow him through the post-production process, just to get practice time in to prep for his duties under Kubrick.



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