Tuesday, 10 October 2017
October Horrors #5:
‘The Dracula Business’
(Anthony de Lotbiniere, 1974)
Originally broadcast as a Tuesday night documentary by the BBC in August 1974, ‘The Dracula Business’ is a thoroughly entertaining forty-five minutes, structured in the ever-popular “this thing happened, also this largely unconnected thing happened” manner beloved of mondo movies and parapsychology paperbacks.
After an (unattributed) playback of the ship scene from Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’, proceedings begin, naturally enough, in Whitby. “I wonder if Count Dracula found this church yard as odd as I do?” muses presenter and Boris Johnson lookalike Dan Farson. Farson is the great nephew of Bram Stoker no less, and a “renowned Soho character” according to my (extremely limited) online research.
After treating some local children to a round of ‘Count Dracula’s Secret’ ice lollies, Farson quizzes them on their knowledge of vampire lore (chalk that up as “scene you definitely wouldn’t see in a documentary these days” # 1), before he attends a meeting of The Dracula Society at Purfleet (and these guys deemed 1972’s ‘Blacula’ “…the mosty horrifying film of the decade” according to my copy of the soundtrack LP, so they know what the hell they’re talking about). “Haven’t you got even ONE crank?” Farson asks the assemblage of mild-mannered eccentrics somewhat disappointedly.
In an attempt to demonstrate how much these programmes cost to make (gag © Eric Idle/Neil Innes), Farson next travels to Transylvania (“..there IS such a place..”) in present-day Romania, where the production captures some remarkably atmospheric footage, visiting a medieval convent decorated with appropriately infernal frescos, wherein nuns ward off evil by circling the grounds hammering planks of wood, whilst peasant-folk who look as if they could have stepped straight out of a Universal torch-wielding mob meanwhile queue up to kiss a carved icon above a well.
We are even presented with a picturesque rural funeral procession, featured in-between shots of mist raising from the forest, as Farson rambles on in pompous Wheatley/Lee type fashion about the depths of ancient superstition and an apparent “outbreak of Vampirism” that ravaged the area in the 18th century.
Remarkably, the filmmakers even manage to track down a woman – one of the singers at the funeral – who, interviewed against a backdrop of the local cemetery, tells Farson (via an interpreter) that her own father was suspected of being a vampire, and was disinterred and staked by village elders. Beat that for local colour.
Back in London meanwhile, things get a tad sillier, as Farson stalks about Highgate cemetery, musing on some recent cases of premature burial. Jarringly, we then jump straight from Farson recalling some spectacularly grim family tales about the ordeals faced by the Stoker family during a cholera outbreak in County Sligo during Bram’s youth, to the London offices of Lorimer Press, where some eager fanboys are sorting through a huge pile of Euro-Horror posters, preparing “..the latest work on vampire films”.
“Paul Naschy, the hunchback of the morgue!”, one of the guys exclaims happily, drawing our attention to a one-sheet for that very motion picture, which sits atop a fairly awesome French poster for (of all things) ‘Blacula’. I’m not sure who these fellows are (we’re not given their names at any point), but they seem like some cool dudes, with a lot of interesting things to say on their subject – perhaps the 1970s precursors to the Kim Newmans and Stephen Throwers of today?
Arguably somewhat less of a cool dude is good ol’ Michael Carreras, whom Farson corners at Hammer House, where he is checking out a test-pressing of Hammer’s cash-in Dracula LP. Carreras says something about the fantasy horror provided by Hammer being contrasted with “modern horror, more of a social realist document kind of thing..”. “Like Belfast?,” Farson jumps in. “Yes, very much so.”
Next up is Denholm Elliot, who gives us a great recitation of a passage from Stoker by way of demonstrating the “sexuality of vampirism”, following on from his 1968 TV version of ‘Dracula’ (which, on the basis of his hamming it up here, I should probably get around to watching). Elliot concludes his reading with perhaps the single greatest suggestive “HMMMMmmmmm…” ever captured on film. “Did you enjoy the devouring?” asks Farson. “Well, quite frankly, that isn’t really my scene…” responds Elliot.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, we then move to an on-set report from the making of Jose Larraz’s ‘Vampyres’ at Oakley Court. “How stunned my poor old Great Uncle might have been by these scenes,” Farson opines as Anulka and Marrianne Morris lounge naked on the bed waiting for the camera to roll, “and of the hard professionalism that goes into the making of this latest style of vampire film”.
We actually get a great glimpse here of Larraz in action, directing his leading ladies in rather hands-on fashion (“now, you go like that, and then like that, now… that is the thing… you come again, alright, with your hands like this…”, etc), all of which proves absolutely fascinating given the complete lack of ‘making of..’ footage that exists for most Euro-horror films of this era.
Sadly though, the scene cuts quite soon, as we return to Romania for a segment exploring Dracula sight-seeing tours, and plans for the “Count Dracula Castle”, which is to be opened to tourists in the Borgo Pass “hopefully in around 1977”. This in turn leads into a bit exploring the history of Vlad Tepes (“he was cruel, but… he had a certain style”) and the theories that have sought to connect him to Stoker’s Dracula.
Apparently running low on purely Dracula-related material, Farson next moves on to “..the general resurgence in the idea of the occult, which is greater in Britain today than it has been in the past few hundred years”. To pursue this further, he heads to a London sci-fi/fantasy bookshop (“specialising entirely in the occult, science fiction, and the ramifications of the Dracula cult..”), which needless to say looks amazing.
Here, he meets a woman, who, put on the spot by the presenter’s blunt questioning, states that she is attracted the idea of reading vampire novels due the fact she is “feeling rather aggressive” because her has husband left her, prompting her to seek vengeance against him through the form of “fantasy violence”. It’s all pretty awkward, to be honest.
From there, we return to Highgate, where poor old Mr Laws, the cemetery caretaker, is dragged out once again to hold forth on the “Highgate vampire”, Alan Farrant and the unfortunate flap of related grave desecrations that generated so much press in the early ‘70s. (For more on this, see my post here from 2010, featuring a report on a BFI screening of a contemporary news report that covered much of the same ground.)
As ever though, Mr Laws is good value for money. Choice quote: “one person said that he’d seen a horrible grey thing wrigglin’ down the road… all this bloody nonsense, y’know… I had to have the police clear them all off out of it..”.
And so it goes on: “Last year, in Stoke On Trent, a man was found dead in this house, in most extraordinary circumstances”. This leads us into the unfortunate tale of a paranoid individual who apparently died after swallowing an entire clove of garlic in an attempt to ward off vampires – a sad tale, somewhat leavened by the fact that the coroner Farson interviews on the subject has such a wonderful, Donald Pleasance-esque manner he could have fared pretty well in a horror movie himself.
The (rather questionable) Rev. Neil Smith subsequently rambles on a bit about his belief in vampirism and his attempts to exorcise people apparently suffering the attentions of vampires, before Farson states his belief that dabbling with the occult has “assumed the scale of an epidemic in modern day Britain”, travelling to “..the reassuring surroundings of a vicarage in Hull” to discuss the issue with a slightly more grounded clergyman, who again, manages somehow to turn his reflections on prevalence of mental illness encouraged by poking about with the powers of darkness into a highly entertaining turn.
Indeed, if there is anything to be said for the entirety of this confused, digressive and fatuous documentary, it is that it is hugely entertaining throughout - probably more so now than when it was first broadcast. The random insights it provides into pop culture and horror fandom circa 1974 are a delight, and it’s massively over-romantised, alien-coded visions of Northern Romania are likewise quite remarkable in their own right.
A perfect palette cleanser to throw on mid-way through your next Halloween movie marathon, ‘The Dracula Business’ can currently be viewed on the BBC iPlayer here, or via Youtube here.