Tuesday 8 June 2010

Track Of The Vampire
(Jack Hill & Stephanie Rothman, 1966)

First off, I would personally like to thank the world’s movie reviewers, horror bloggers, authors of the various nerd-tastic reference works I like to consult etc., for keeping me in the dark for so long re: the unique qualities of this obscure AIP schedule-filler, thus allowing it to hit me as a real unexpected surprise. Thanks guys - I appreciate it! In some small way, it feels like Christmas when a film I’d never even heard of (well, maybe I read the title once or twice, or saw a poster somewhere..) turns out to be more weird and wonderful than I could ever have hoped.

I didn’t deliberately set out to watch “Track of the Vampire” - it’s the other movie on a double feature DVD I bought primarily to see Barbara Steele in “Nightmare Castle”. Reading the back of the box whilst sitting through the latter in a narcoleptic haze (it’s the only way to watch “Nightmare Castle”), I was intrigued to note that “Track..” is co-directed by two of American International’s most talented b-team directors, Jack Hill (Mr. Spider Baby himself) and Stephanie Rothman (who went on to introduce a welcome dose of feminism into American exploitation in the ‘70s via flicks like “The Student Nurses”). My interest thus piqued, the least I could do was shift this thing up my viewing schedule and check it the hell out. And I’m very glad I did.

To my surprise, “Track of the Vampire” begins not with one of AIP’s trademark animated credits sequences, but with a brilliantly atmospheric ‘town square at midnight’ scene-setter, reminiscent of the way Mario Bava utilised the creepy geometry of old Mediterranean architecture in flicks like “Kill Baby Kill” and “Lisa & The Devil”.

Those can’t be sets, surely…?

Less surprisingly, a monstrous, black-hatted fellow of some description has emerged from the shadows to prey upon a lone female! Fangs! Groping! Cripes, what horrors!

A pretty cool opening, no doubt, but the moment I knew I was REALLY going to love “Track of the Vampire” was when we cut straight to a bunch of beatniks, who are avidly watching what appears to be a severed eyeball attached to a metronome…

In what I assume is a cheeky homage to Corman’s classic “A Bucket of Blood”, our hep-cats begin earnestly discussing the nature of artistic expression, as Karl Schanzer (Schlocker out of “Spider Baby”) explains his new concept of ‘quantum painting’. I think it looks like a lotta fun, and the beatniks seem to agree!

Where the hell is this movie supposed to be set, you may be asking by this point. Europe? America? No my friends, nothing so crude. With a vagueness that borders on genius, “Track of the Vampire” seems to take place instead in ‘60s-HORROR-TOWN, a free-floating principality that those of us who watch too many of these movies may occasionally find ourselves visiting in dreams.

A place where imposing gothic edifices cast leery shadows across cobbled streets and waves crash hypnotically and unceasingly upon the eerily deserted beach, where beatniks beat their chops in cantinas, eccentric artists skulk in their converted crypt studios, and a seemingly endless supply of beautiful, dark-haired girls practice their roles in daring avant garde ballet productions.

Throughout this whole movie, I don’t think we meet so much as one ‘normal’ person – no squares, no policemen, no shopkeepers, no reporters – just the way out kids, occasional surly innkeepers and seekers after truth… and the guy with the fangs.

Damn, I love it here, I wish I could stay forever. It reminds me of happy times in my youth, staggering around seaside towns by night, pissed out of my brain, with the sobering sea air on my face and all of life stretching out ahead of me… (again, guy with fangs notwithstanding).

Anyway, another thrilling stalk n’ strangle sequence is up next, serving to perfectly illustrate the strange and pleasurable art/trash disjuncture that seems to be going on throughout “Track of the Vampire”…

Seriously - one moment we could be looking at brooding, expressionistic framing straight out of a Murnau or Fritz Lang movie, the next it’s like we’re suddenly transported to that stupid bit in “Astro Zombies” where those guys chase each other around a swimming pool for about a hour and Tura Satana shoots somebody…

And as I probably don’t need to remind you, this weird negative zone connecting the two is pretty much EXACTLY where I like to find myself on movie night.

This scene, in which a girl dances across the beach to pad out the running time a little, just goes on, and on, and on, far longer than such a scene ever really should. Being generally in favour of such dreamy nonsense, I was having a lovely time with all the woozy marimba music and compound-eye lenses and stuff, but when it hit the five minute mark even I was thinking “right, that’s enough of that, can we have some kind of event or something now?”

William Campbell plays troubled artist Antonio Sordi, who does a brisk trade knocking out bloodthirsty paintings like this one;


That’s right! Another one bites the dust.

Campbell is superbly creepy, lumbering about and drawling his lines like Robert Mitchum’s punch-drunk older brother.

The scene in which an unsuspecting girl poses for him whilst he stares at a canvas he’s just painted pitch black, ranting about the fate of his ancestor, a controversial artist who was killed by the inquisition in the 11th century, seeing the laughing face of the woman whose evidence condemned him reflected in the black mess, is one of the most grandly ghoulish and unsettling scenes I’ve seen in a gothic horror flick for a long time.

That alone would have done a really nice job of transforming the standard “cornball explanation of why he’s a psycho” sequence into something altogether more enjoyable, but when the scene shifts into a full tilt, Bergman-esque desert dream sequence in which Sordi acts out the drama of his heretical forebear…. man, it’s a knock-out!

If my generalised talk of ‘girls’ in this review seems a tad crass, I apologise, but the fact is “Track of the Vampire”s general sense of oneiric incoherence makes it very difficult to keep tabs on it’s myriad female characters, most of whom look very similar and sometimes even seem to change places, or come back from the dead, or reappear as their own sisters and so on. The whole thing almost has a kind of constantly shifting, Jean Rollin-like drift to it, and if there are some fine and characterful performances from the female cast hidden in their somewhere, I’m damned if I can figure out who was who by looking at the cast-list in order to acknowledge them.

The fact that most of the actresses look distantly familiar from other AIP movies, but that I can never QUITE put names to the faces, only increases this delicious feeling of dislocation, as I stumble through “Track of the Vampire” wondering whether I last saw that girl who was dancing on the beach hanging out in a technicolour castle with Vincent Price, or riding with a wild black & white hotrod gang… or did I just see her out of the corner of my eye in some movie-inspired dream…? Ah, the truth – forever beyond my grasp! Here I sit, like poor old Vincent in one of those Poe movies where his new wife turns into his dead wife or his daughter turns into his mother or whatever, contemplating the possibility that I’m just DREAMING this whole ridiculous movie…

Later on, we get some shots like this one, that lead me to think, holy shit, that’s no back projection – did Roger Corman actually pack everybody off to Europe to make this damned thing…?

Given Corman’s legendary reputation for penny-pinching, I’ve always been kind of curious about how and why he let Francis Coppola go all the way to Ireland to shoot “Dementia 13” in ‘63, so on that basis I guess an overseas jolly for Hill and Rothman wouldn’t have been *completely* beyond the realms of possibility… although the suits at AIP can’t have been too thrilled when they returned with a film this art-damaged and incoherent.

One thing I absolutely love about the best of the black & white ‘60s AIP film is that even as they were poking fun at beatniks and art world pretension, they really do carry a genuine ‘beat’ sensibility that somehow manages to sit neatly alongside their exploitation / pure entertainment agenda. Certainly you’d be hard pressed to find anything in the early ‘60s avant garde as shocking and fragmented as “Dementia 13”, as insightful as “Bucket of Blood” or as uncompromising in it’s rejection of social norms as “Spider Baby”, even as all three still function perfectly well on the level of goofy horror movie fun.

I guess it goes without saying that Corman and Hill and Rothman and Coppola and Daniel Haller were all smart, talented, literate people, and an uncanny sense of vitality and intelligence can’t help but shine through in their work, even as the moneymen crack the whip. And if that latent sense of experimentation can be seen creeping around the edges of those other movies, it’s a pure delight to find it exploding all over “Track Of The Vampire”, a film that, whilst highly accomplished in technical terms, couldn’t have been much more of a free-wheeling daydream if Corman had hired a bunch of Venice Beach hippies to shoot it.

There is a refreshing ‘first thought/best thought’ feeling about the film’s incongruous mix of beautiful, well-executed sequences and total junk, a spirit of knowing good humour and energy that makes the resulting film a hoot, even as the events on-screen make about as much sense as a 3am conversation in the bar at an Italian scriptwriter’s convention.


A starry-eyed rampage through the back roads of the mid-‘60s subconscious disguised as a commercial b-movie, “Track of the Vampire” blows my mind.

Of course, every dream is followed by the crude awakening when you realise you’ve got to put your trousers on and get the hell to work in the next twenty minutes, and a modicum of internet research reveals that my vision of Jack and Stephanie hanging out on the beach together, sharing a few sticks of tea and crafting this mad movie was sadly pretty wide of the mark.

The real circumstances behind “Track of the Vampire”s creation are as follows:

One day, Roger Corman acquired the rights to an obscure Yugoslavian movie, the intriguingly titled “Operation Titian”, for the price of a milkshake, but subsequently deemed it too dull to bother releasing. (I’m guessing this is where all the atmospheric location shooting and chase sequences came from?)

Meanwhile, Jack Hill was busy shooting a whole bunch of footage for another film that never got finished for some reason (all the beatnik/mad artist stuff, presumably?), and Corman, utilising his uncanny ability to pull a feature film out of just about anything, decided he might as well crowbar the two together into, well… SOMETHING, roping in Stephanie Rothman to write and shoot enough additional scenes to establish some sense of coherence.

And if “some sense of coherence” would be a pretty generous description of the film that eventually emerged, I think we’ve still got to give it up for all concerned – “Track of the Vampire”, ladies and gents, a wholly ACCIDENTAL masterpiece of ‘60s weirdo horror.

As a final note, IMDB tells me that Sid Haig turns up in this movie, portraying “Abdul the Arab”.

I’ve watched it twice now, and don’t recall seeing any “Abdul the Arab”.

He’s probably in there somewhere though. Maybe he’s hiding. It’s just that kinda movie.

Sweet dreams.


Ratravarman said...

There are two pictures in this article showing the group of hipsters at their favorite dive. Sid Haig is the tall, lanky man with beard and mustache wearing a vest over his naked torso. He is in the center of the first picture and popping above the head of the artist in the second. This was when we was quite young (early to mid 20s).

Anonymous said...

Love this thing-a movie you can watch over and over and find new things and not be bored. Excellent music too (taken from other AIP films, I'm Sure!).

varanid9 said...

I saw this back in the early '70s and found it very confusing. Now I know why. Your description of the story's setting as a sort of "surreal-ville" makes me think of the short short stories by the author Thomas Ligotti or some of Clark Ashton Smith's stories set in an unnamed European City that seems to exist in the middle of nowhere. Now I want to see this film again.