Thursday, 25 July 2019

Rutger Hauer
(1944 – 2019)

Like most people who like films, I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of Rutger Hauer. Seventy five seems far too young for an actor who I’m sure could have rocked his way through old age with gusto.

A revered stalwart of what I suppose you might call the “Fuck yeah! [insert name here] is in this film!” fellowship over the past four decades, I am sad to see him go.

I’m aware of course that Hauer had a mighty rep as a serious actor in The Netherlands, particularly with regard to his regular appearances in Paul Verhoeven’s pre-Hollywood films, and his subsequent role in Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Eureka’, but, having not seen any of those films at the time of writing, I’m forced to admit that I know Hauer the same way most cult movie fans do: as an all-conquering b-movie beast of the ‘80s and ‘90s, seemingly ready to wield a machine gun and get a peroxide buzz-cut for anyone willing to hand him a cheque, and reliably dishing out a mess of scene-stealing bad guy / anti-hero business in the process.

A few highlights that immediately spring to mind include:

The Hitcher (1986) – Hauer plays the relentless, nigh on supernaturally efficient psychopath at the centre of Robert Harmon and Eric Red’s relentless, nigh on supernaturally efficient suspense thriller. Sadly, some kind of copyright wranglings or right-holder issues have seem to have led to ‘The Hitcher’ enjoying a lower profile than it deserves in recent years, but readers who have not seen it are urged to do what they must to track a copy down. They won’t be disappointed.

Split Second (1992) – Probably my absolute favourite bad ‘90s sci-fi movie, ‘Split Second’ features Hauer as an ultra-macho, rule-breaking cop with requisite trench-coat, mirror shades and obsession with “BIG FUCKING GUNS”, stalking his way through a flooded, dystopian future London which looks suspiciously similar to actual, 1992 London, eating greasy breakfasts in run-down bars and battling some kind of baffling conglomeration of elements borrowed from ‘Alien’, ‘Predator’ and… some random Satanic cult movie? Feeling very much like an unusually knuckleheaded ‘90s 2000AD strip brought to life, ‘Split Second’ is more fun than just about anything else I can possibly imagine, and, unlike ‘The Hitcher’, you can probably buy a beautifully restored copy for peanuts without even leaving your chair. Life is good!

Salute of the Jugger (1989) – To be honest, I’ve not actually seen this Australian post-apocalyptic sports movie(!), in which Hauer plays the lead alongside Joan Chen of ‘Twin Peaks’ fame, since the VHS era. I remember really enjoying it though, and I’ve recently acquired a copy, so look forward to re-visiting it. Maybe this weekend? Should work well with the hot weather, right? I can scarcely wait.

As readers will no doubt be aware, Rutger Hauer also memorably appeared in another sci-fi movie in the early 1980s, in which he delivered a striking, allegedly improvised, soliloquy on the nature of mortality which few have ever forgotten.

Something tells me one or two other obituaries may be liable to pick up on that one though, so… we won’t go the obvious route here. Let’s face it, you can probably all recite it by this point.


Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Creepy-Crawl Cinema:
The Female Bunch
(Al Adamson, 1969)

Of all the material I’ve read (and listened to) over the years concerning The Manson Family, no chroniclers seem to have made mention of the fact that infamous b-movie director Al Adamson was actually shooting footage for several movies on the Spahn Ranch during the height of ‘Helter Skelter’ in the summer of 1969. (1)

In itself, there is nothing terribly surprising about this. After all, Spahn was a movie ranch, and it was still (just about) open for business. Sure, it was in a pretty seedy and dilapidated state, but where else would you expect to find a seedy and dilapidated filmmaker like Adamson plying his trade?

What is more interesting rather is the eerie similarity between the storyline of Adamson’s ‘The Female Bunch’ – in which a gang of outlaw women who deem themselves “rejects” from society live on a remote desert ranch, obeying the orders of a controlling central figure (Grace, played by Jennifer Bishop) who encourages them to torture and kill outsiders – and the actual events which were unfolding in the immediate vicinity of the movie’s shooting location.

Given that ‘The Female Bunch’ was shot more or less back-to-back with Adamson’s better known biker flick ‘Satan’s Sadists’, which seems to have taken inspiration from both the nomenclature and degenerate behaviour of the biker gangs most closely associated with The Manson Family (the ‘Straight Satans’ and ‘Satan’s Slaves’), one can’t help but wonder to what extent Adamson and his collaborators interacted with, or were at least aware of, the whole Manson freak show, months before it became headline news.

Is this something Adamson, or anyone else involved in these productions, ever discussed in interviews? Have any of the cast members talked about their experiences filming on the ranch? I’m sure there must be some stories here. (Perhaps Severin Films’ forthcoming documentary on Adamson might shed some light on things?)

By the early ‘70s of course, just about every horror or exploitation movie being made in the USA was drawing to some extent on the feedback loop of new fears and cultural archetypes arising from the Manson murders, but, just as summer ’69 also found Hollywood hipster Dean Stockwell incorporating some notably Manson-like elements into his portrayal of Wilbur Wheatley in AIP’s adaptation of ‘The Dunwich Horror’ (see my review for more on that), the notion that the bad vibes emanating from Manson were making their way into popular culture even before the whole story broke at the end of 1969, is fascinating to me.

So, although I’m certainly no fan of Adamson’s work (see below), I’m afraid I just couldn’t resist the temptation to track this one down and take the plunge. If my motives were impure, well, I’ll just let the lord judge me on that as a matter of heavenly routine, although I suspect that the experience of merely sitting through this damned thing was punishment enough.

To begin by stating the obvious then: anyone approaching this film in the hope of glimpsing some inadvertent verité footage of Manson-y type goings on will be disappointed. No obvious evidence of The Family’s presence made it into the film, no Manson girls were roped in as extras, and you certainly won’t get to see any of your favourite murderous reprobates hanging around in the background, waving to camera.

About the closest Manson-watchers will get to a thrill in fact is the realisation that the horses the “Female Bunch” ride throughout the movie are quite possibly the same ones that the Manson girls cared for and rented out to tourists as part of The Family’s deal with George Spahn (a duty they seem to have performed with surprising diligence, given the lack of concern they displayed for the well-being of their fellow human beings), along with a vague suspicion that the random automobiles which can be seen in the background of some shots may or may not have been Family run-arounds. (There is also a static caravan / trailer home visible in one shot – high excitement!)

The shabby corral buildings, paddock and barns around which much of the ‘action’ takes place are non-descript, bearing no outward sign of hippie witchery. Admittedly, the low light levels and the poor quality of the print makes it difficult to discern much detail, but, if it is possible for buildings themselves to actually look greasy, well, ‘The Female Bunch’ at least achieves this.

Elsewhere, the bar in which the women engage in a frankly disgusting drunken grope-fest with a bunch of sweaty-looking dudes during an excursion into “Mexico”, might perhaps have been shot within the café that formed part of Spahn’s standing sets... but it could equally have taken place elsewhere, perhaps even on a small sound stage. It all looks a bit too neat and tidy, to my eyes, although the footage of the actresses writhing around naked in the sawdust and spilled booze as the men paw them is authentically foul, irrespective of the production circumstances.

Meanwhile, could the film’s totally gratuitous shower scene have actually been filmed in the Spahn Ranch’s (rarely used) bathing facilities…? I think I see some kind of weird, hippie mural in the background in some adjacent shots, but it’s difficult to make out. The mind boggles (or at least kind of shivers and cringes a bit).

Leaving all Manson-related prurience aside however, one thing we can be certain of is that ‘The Female Bunch’ is a not a very good film.

This too, is unsurprising. As much as I wish I could celebrate Al Adamson as some kind of wild exploitation maverick, the truth is that, to date, I’ve never actually managed to enjoy one of his movies. As a cult movie fan, I realise that I’m required to watch them once in a while, but it’s more of a purgatorial rite of passage than anything else.

I appreciate how difficult it is to make a good film, but even so, to be as consistently bad as Adamson takes some singular kind of anti-talent. Even in his most ostensibly entertaining productions (such as 1973’s Jim Kelly vehicle ‘The Black Samurai’, for instance), I find myself frustrated by the wasted potential, as theoretically cool and crazy scenes are ruined by clumsy framing, muffed action/effects shots, amateurish editing and lifeless performances... and then interspersed with interminably drawn out padding sequences of, oh, I dunno, people riding around on horses in the dark, for example.

I realise that the ragged (presumably VHS-era?) transfer of ‘The Female Bunch’ under consideration for this review probably didn’t help matters, but even so, the quality of much of the photography in this film is extremely poor, even by Adamson standards. Much of the footage is handheld, with zooms and wobbly focus pulls used to cut down on set-ups, including a lot of that Doris Wishman type stuff where the camera drifts in close-up across characters’ clothing and boots whilst they’re speaking, but even more problematic are the lengthy day-for-night (or possibly just “shit, it got dark”) scenes, which are pretty much incomprehensible in their current iteration. (2)

It’s possible I suppose that a more sympathetic presentation of the film may save the day here, but I equally suspect that the insufficient light levels in these secenes may be baked into the original footage - providing one explanation perhaps for why ‘The Female Bunch’ sat on the shelf for two years following its completion. (The credited Director of Photography, by the way, was Paul Glickman, who went on to work extensively with both Larry Cohen and Radley Metzger. What gives, Paul?)

Given the wealth of extraordinary sights and sounds offered by the precarious wonderland of Southern California at the end of the 1960s (some of them, I hasten to add, literally round the corner from the sets used here), not to mention the surrounding areas of outstanding natural beauty, it seems extraordinary to me that Adamson could manage to make a movie this drab, featureless and ugly. But, then I recall my recent attempt to sit through 1971’s ‘Brain of Blood’ (I still wake up at night crying tears of pain), and think, well… yeah, of course he could.

On the plus side, the opening and closing segments (actually shot in Utah I believe), in which the film’s lead couple make their getaway in a red convertible whilst somebody in a light aircraft blasts away at them with a shotgun, comprise some pretty decent low budget action stuff, and some of the day-time horse riding footage is competently done, with some bright colours and classic Western-style low angle shots and such. (3)

Oh, and I quite enjoyed the theme song as well – ‘Two Lonely People’, a cool Tom Jones-meets-Lee Hazlewood style country-pop belter, performed by one Bruce Powers. (I did check Youtube to try to share it with you, but no dice.)

I’m guessing that ‘The Female Bunch’s largely undistinguished female cast must have been picked on the basis of their physical attributes, riding ability and willingness to get naked rather than their thespian talent, but nonetheless, The Russ Meyer-esque “hard as nails bitches” plotline at least helps the early scenes detailing the gang’s hierarchy and initiation rituals to remain somewhat entertaining, although the absence of even the slightest iota of Meyer’s talent, wit or bravado is sorely felt.

Notable amongst the assembled “bunch” is the flaming red haired, whip-wielding Aleshia Brevard, a performer who worked extensively as an actress, ‘show girl’ and Marilyn Monroe impersonator during the ‘60s and ‘70s, revealing only later in life that she was actually born as Alfred Brevard in Tennessee in 1937, before undergoing an early version of M to F gender reassignment surgery in 1962. (Thanks, IMDB!) Her character name here? Sadie. (Cue your spooky music cue of choice.)

Adamson’s partner (later wife), the ubiquitous Regina Carrol, also makes an impression here as the man-hating go-go dancer who first lures our naive heroine to the ranch, whilst heroin of another kind is regrettably on the menu elsewhere, as another gang member, “Sharon” (actress unidentified), is revealed to be a conniving junkie.

This leads to one of the most horribly skeevy shooting up scenes I’ve witnessed in ‘60s cinema, as she ties off with what looks like some kind of transparent plastic tubing before – rather unfeasibly - enjoying a rough bit of sapphic sex with another girl as the drug kicks in (cue kaleidoscope effects, and stripper jazz on the soundtrack). Perhaps it was just the fact that the performers look so tired and sweaty that creeped me out, but seriously, this was grim.

Viewers of ‘Satan’s Sadists’ meanwhile will recall that one of the main things which propelled that film toward the giddy heights of watchability was Russ Tamblyn’s startlingly sleazy lead performance as a psychotic biker, and happily he is on similarly fine form in ‘The Female Bunch’, essaying the role of a shiftless desert layabout who defiles the all-female sanctuary of the gang’s ranch after making a covert date with one of the girls.

Although he doesn’t get a great deal of screen time here, Tamblyn embodies the spirit of a leery, Mansonite scuzzball with worrying conviction, especially during the film’s overall creepy-crawliest scene, in which the women hold him down and carve a cross onto his forehead. Later, after vowing revenge, he also has the misfortune to suffer one of the most pathetic, anti-climactic “death” scenes I’ve ever seen in an American b-movie (seriously? “Pitchfork stuffed down the back of his pants, then he falls over, in long shot”? you’re really going to go with that?), but, we’ll take our yukks where we can get them in a movie like this.

Another thing that bugs me about Adamson’s films is his habit of digging up forgotten actors from the golden age of Hollywood b-movies… and then ensuring they remain forgotten by squandering their talents in demeaning, undignified roles that make you wonder why he bothered to track them down in the first place. Fulfilling this role in 1969 was poor old Lon Chaney Jr, who actually had the misfortune of making his final screen appearance in ‘The Female Bunch’. Though Chaney is given a lot more to get his teeth here into than in his mute role in Adamson’s ‘Dracula vs Frankenstein’ (filmed a few months earlier), the poor man was clearly in a sorry state by this point.

Playing an aging ex-stuntman, the only male whose presence is tolerated on the Female Bunch’s ranch, Lon’s character is, strangely enough, the only figure in this movie who is actually given an emotional arc or any kind of depth. He has been lured to the ranch as a result of his infatuation with Grace, but, now that her sexual favours have (understandably) been withdrawn, he has found himself bullied by her and reduced to a mere caretaker and domestic servant for the women.

The perpetual blundering sad-sack, Chaney fits this role like a badly soiled glove, and, though his voice is already ravaged by the throat cancer that would contribute to his death in 1973 and he seems to be having trouble walking, he nonetheless throws himself into the part with gusto. Nice work, Lon.

For better or worse, some of the footage of Chaney that Adamson presents here is unsettlingly candid. There are some lovely (though sadly curtailed) moments which find him regaling the girls with (apparently genuine) memories of his time working as a stuntman on westerns, but elsewhere, seeing him unshaven and watery-eyed, slugging straight from a rapidly emptying bottle of vodka whilst apparently unaware he is being filmed, is absolutely heart-breaking.

I mean… I don’t know, man. I don’t want to sit here passing moral judgement on some film shoot half a century ago, but I think they owed the big guy a bit more respect than that. Against all the odds, Lon was trying here. I wish I could say the same for Al.


Given its shooting location and storyline, one thing I find curious about ‘The Female Bunch’ is the fact that it wasn’t rushed out to cash in on the Manson hysteria in early 1970 -- unlike ‘Satan’s Sadists’, which was soon cleaning up in drive-ins with an especially lurid ad campaign promising “wild hippies on a mad murder spree”, “filmed on the actual locations where the Tate murder suspects lived their wild experiences”.

This is probably a result of the fact that, whereas ‘..Sadists’ was released by Adamson and his long-standing partner Sam Sherman through their fledging Independent International Pictures operation, ‘The Female Bunch’ seems to have been the result of a one-off production deal Adamson inked with Raphael Nussbaum (the director of 1973’s ‘Pets’ and eight other features I’ve never even heard of) and Mardi Rustam (the man who later fired Tobe Hooper from Tourist Trap / Eaten Alive).

Trivia on IMDB states that Adamson shot ‘Satan’s Sadists’ at short notice after “..a more expensive production that he’d been working on collapsed” – this one, presumably. Reading between the lines, I suspect there may have been a falling out between Adamson and his producers, but either way, when ‘The Female Bunch’ eventually appeared in ’71, it was jointly “presented” by Mardi Rustam Films and Dalia Productions (Nussbaum’s company), suggesting that those guys perhaps took control of the film after shooting was completed, preparing it for release at their leisure.

Whether Nussbaum and Rustam had more qualms than Adamson and Sherman did about cashing in on mass murder, who knows (the end credits on the film pointedly mention only Utah as a shooting location), but alternatively, perhaps by ’71 the Manson angle simply seemed like old news and didn’t occur to them. So, they went for the Peckinpah angle instead, I guess..?

I’m equally unsure whether this film did much for them at the box office (I doubt it), but they at least commissioned a great poster for it. Let’s close proceedings by taking a look at it and imagining how much fun this movie might have been, had circumstances been different.


(1) Some wag has actually added 11th August ’69 – the date of the Cielo Drive murders – as a shooting date on IMDB, but I think this can probably be discounted. Given how extensively the comings and goings at the ranch during that day have been chronicled by authors and investigators, I’m sure they would have found time to mention it if somebody was shooting a movie there with Lon Chaney Jr and Russ Tamblyn!

(2) Regular readers might well cry foul here, recalling that I’ve often praised Jess Franco for precisely this kind of off-piste camerawork, but I dunno, what can I say? If Franco (at his best) wields the camera like a visionary jazz player, Adamson and his operator by contrast feel as if they’re still thumping away in the basement trying to figure out the chords to ‘Louie Louie’. Which… actually sounds quite fun, now that I think about it? Note to self: music / cinematography metaphor needs work.

(3) It should perhaps be noted here that Adamson’s protégé John ‘Bud’ Cardos – future director of such solid b-movie fare as ‘Mutant’ (1984) and ‘Kingdom of the Spiders’ (1977) – is credited with “additional direction of action and continuity footage” on ‘The Female Bunch’. From my admittedly biased point of view, I will take this to mean that he directed the bits which are not terrible.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Pulp Non-Fiction:
The Family:
The Story of Charles Manson’s
Dune Buggy Attack Battalion
by Ed Sanders
(Panther, 1973)


“Tex then told Sadie to scout the house for other people. She evidently climbed up the redwood ladder to look in the loft. And then she walked to the south, toward the hallway off which were the two main bedrooms of the house. In the room on the left, Abigail Folger lay reading alone. She looked up, she saw Sadie, and Abigail waved! Waved and smiled, and Sadie smiled back and walked away. Hi death.”
- p.233

Long ago, in my late teenage years, I decided it was time for me to overcome my natural distaste for ‘true crime’ subject matter and get the full dope on this whole Manson Family business, which I kept finding fearful references to in the ‘60s counter-culture books and rock biogs that composed the bulk of my non-fiction reading at the time.

A remaindered copy of Los Angeles County Assistant D.A. & Chief Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s exhaustive 1974 book ‘Helter Skelter: The True Story of The Manson Murders’ certainly did the trick with regard to nailing down the essential facts of the matter (or, the officially recorded versions thereof, at least), but at the same time, the book’s mountain of dry, forensic detail raised as many questions as it answered, particularly with regard to the aspect of the whole business that most interested me – that being, the wider cultural and sociological circumstances that allowed these insane events to transpire in the first place.

When I learned of the existence of Ed Sanders’ ‘The Family’, I naturally supposed that an investigation undertaken by a member of The Fugs might shed a slightly different light on things, but sourcing a copy of Sanders’ book proved difficult at the time, and besides, I didn’t really have the stomach for reading two massive Manson tomes in quick succession.

Fast forward to 2019 however, and I’ve actually ended up with two paperback copies of ‘The Family’ (boring story not worth recounting here), so, with Charlie himself now finally six feet under and the ever-classy Quentin Tarantino apparently revving up his new, Manson-related movie for release to coincide the 50th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders… the time finally seemed nigh to actually read the damned thing. (1)

Before continuing, I should issue a disclaimer to clarify that I generally take a dim view anything which seeks to glorify and/or obsess over the activities of real life serial killers. In and of himself, Charles Manson was little more than a psychotic confidence trickster and pimp, worthy of no more interest or respect than any other creep who has ever made a career out of exploiting human misery.

What fascinates me rather is the frequently extraordinary nature of the marginal – and otherwise largely undocumented - worlds in which Manson moved, and the unique socio-cultural circumstances that allowed him to achieve such remarkable success (in psycho cult leader terms, at least) within them.

Manson’s followers have often been likened to locusts in terms of their tendency to hoover up cash, drugs, vehicles, food, crash-space and favours from anyone who gave them even the slightest opportunity to do so, but in the same way, Charlie himself strikes me as a kind of cultural locust.

In addition to his extensive and well-documented connections to the music and movie industries (which we need not reiterate here), the wider scope of Manson’s activities also seemed to encompass various other cult religious groups, assorted ‘hippie’ communities (including the core San Francisco scene centred around The Diggers, The Grateful Dead and the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic), several fringe Christian churches, Scientology and its shadier off-shoots, Anton Lavey’s comical Church of Satan, certain therapy / self help institutions, behavioural/hypnosis specialists and the formative roots of California’s New Age culture, along with the world of literary science fiction, prison sub-cultures (of both racist and homosexual varieties), college students and Berkeley activist groups, pirate radio broadcasters, underground and documentary filmmakers, the world of strip clubs, go-go dancers and ‘stag films’, outlaw motorcycle gangs, desert motor-racing enthusiasts, a wide variety of drug traffickers and manufacturers, the community of stuntmen and cowboys hanging around the Spahn Ranch, and even the culture of modern day gold prospectors and wilderness homesteaders whom The Family interacted with in Death Valley.

Excepting perhaps Dennis Wilson, I’m not aware that Manson ever hung out with any surfers (his activities being primarily directed in-land), and his virulent racism prohibited him from interacting with any black, Latino or Native American sub-cultures (despite his constant bleating about “Black Panthers”, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he was ever even in the same zip code as any of them) - BUT, that aside, it seems as if pretty much EVERYONE who has was cultivating a lifestyle outside of the square, mainstream norm in Southern California in the late 1960s was touched by the dirty fingers of Manson at some point, and the groups on the above list who had any credibility to begin with all found themselves degraded and damaged to some extent by the association. Meanwhile, he managed to feed something gleamed from every single one of them into the insane, indigestible gumbo of his eventual ‘Helter Skelter’ project.


How did so many doors open for him? That’s the question that fascinates. Purely in terms of his attempts to infiltrate the entertainment industry, the fact that a character this unkempt, criminally-minded and evidently deranged could manoeuvre himself into a position one step removed from figures of such diverse cultural import as Doris Day, Kenneth Anger, Nancy Sinatra and Neil Young, is remarkable. Even if he’d never turned to murder, Manson's exploits as a kind of Sunset Strip Rasputin would remain intriguing to those of us with an interest in this particular historical milieu.

And happily, as the back cover blurb for Panther’s UK paperback of ‘The Family’ strongly implies, these wider connections between Manson and the cultures he managed to infiltrate is very much the subject that Sanders gets stuck into herein, striking an extremely precarious balance between credibility and sensationalism in the process.

At the outset, I was slightly worried that, given his own sub-cultural affiliations, Sanders may have been tempted to take a more sympathetic line on Manson and his cronies than Bugliosi, but rest assured, he goes even harder on them than the Chief Prosecutor, if such is possible, with his pejorative-heavy descriptions of the Family members betraying the anger of a man who has seen the public image of the movement he tied himself to warped and discredited by the actions of a bunch of kill-crazy goons.

As anyone who taken even the slightest interest in this stuff will be aware, attempting to research the wider activities of the Manson Family is liable to lead one pretty quickly into a bottomless Death Valley black hole of mis/disinformation, rife with missing links, random dead ends and irresolvable contradictions. For each verifiable fact that can be established about The Family, there are a thousand rumours, exaggerations and outright lies to contend with.

As Sanders outlines in his introduction, his method for dealing with this was basically to trawl through the testimony of anyone and everyone who interacted with The Family and proved willing to talk about the matter (indeed, the author implies that his hippie/yippie ‘cred’ allowed him access to deeper sources than the authorities were able to tap), and then to cross-reference these interviews against a map and timeline outlining (as far as is possible) the locations and activities of the killers, their associates and (where relevant) their victims. Basically it seems, everything that proved both interesting and not verifiably untrue made it into the book, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.

As we’ll discuss below, Sanders’ excursions into the further realms of speculation got him into no small amount of trouble, and the accuracy of more or less everything he throws into ‘The Family’ remains open to question, but, when you’re dealing with a set of witnesses who were likely various combinations of stoned, mentally ill, terrified, brain-washed and self-interested at the time of their testimony, I’d argue that he was probably right to retain as many of the “apparently”s, “allegedly”s and “it is reported that..”s as possible.

I do wish that Sanders had been a bit more forthcoming about his sources, and a bit more circumspect about the wilder rumours he offers up as ‘fact’, but at the same time, when it comes to defining the contours of the vast psychic maelstrom emanating from the undeniably grim realities of Hollywood, August 1969, I tend to think there is probably just as much value in hearing what people were saying about the events in their immediate aftermath, as in the cold hard facts themselves – and, so long as you can take him with a generous pinch of salt, Sanders’ book certainly provides an invaluable record of the former.


“It seems strange that all of a sudden they got in to wearing black capes. The girls made Charlie one that reached to the floor. With a flourish Manson tried it on, remarking how no one for sure now could see him when he creepy-crawled. Mary Brunner had a black cape. Sadie had a cape. Squeeky, according to Danny DeCarlo, used to dye clothing black in a pot in the Spahn Ranch kitchen.”
- p. 185

If nothing else, the version of Charlie presented here was certainly industrious. Whereas you’d naturally expect a messianic cult leader to express hostility toward competing gurus, Manson, in keeping with his locust-like M.O., often seems to have actively encouraged the crossover of personnel and ideas between his ‘Family’ and various other groupings of fringe whackos, and Sanders’ book is particularly strong when it comes to making the case that the Mansonites were not an isolated phenomenon, but merely the most high profile symptom of a entire network of similarly demented (and potentially dangerous) groups who seemed to flourishing on the far outskirts of American society.

It is reported, for instance, that in 1968 Manson was present as a “guest of honour” at a bizarre trial / exorcism rite undertaken by some kind of homosexual “death cult” operating out of a commune house (the Waller Street Ashram, otherwise known as the “Devil House”) in Haight Ashbury. During this alleged event, a young man identified only as “Pussycat” – the former lover of the cult’s boss, one Father P., who is later said to have visited Manson at Spahn Ranch - was put through a series of gruelling ordeals to try to save him from a supposed demonic possession orchestrated by a deserter from the group. “Poor Pussycat,” quoth Sanders. (2)

The author also spends a full chapter outlining the eye-opening history of an outfit known as the Solar Lodge of the O.T.O., an illegitimate off-shoot from the branch of the famed Crowleyite magickal order, which seems to have mutated by the late ‘60s into a controlling personality cult masterminded by a woman named Jean Brayton, the wife of a USC philosophy lecturer.

Like The Family, The Solar Lodge made their home on a remote desert ranch, and there seems to have been a clear crossover of ideas (and, Sanders implies, personnel) between Brayton’s group and the Mansonites. Brayton is reported for instance to have also preached a gospel of hard-line racism, predicting the approach of an apocalyptic race war and telling her followers they would need to hide-out in underground caverns to survive the resulting carnage (sound familiar?).

The control Brayton and her husband exercised over their followers seems to have been even more sadistic and authoritarian than that practiced by Manson, but, thankfully, The Solar Lodge was put on ice in July 1969, when their leadership was arrested en masse on child abuse charges, after some horse traders who had visited their ranch called the police, having observed what investigating officers later confirmed to be a six-year-old boy chained up in a six foot square wooden crate and left exposed to the desert sun – which gives us some insight into the kind of outfit these particular creepos were really operating.

It should be noted however that, despite the publicity surrounding this ‘boy in the box’ case, Sanders’ claims regarding Manson’s connections with the Solar Lodge seem never to have been verified elsewhere. A brief web search reveals that the Braytons – who were soon back on the street and heading up another neo-Crowleyite religious order after initially fleeing to Mexico to avoid the child abuse charges – actually initiated legal action against Sanders in 1973, reaching an out of court settlement which ensured that the entire chapter related to the Solar Lodge was excised from future editions of ‘The Family’. Presumably, Panther’s UK paperback, dated that year, must have made it to the printers shortly before this agreement came into effect. Lucky me! (3)

In parallel with the Solar Lodge, Sanders also raises the spectre of a particularly shady motorcycle gang known as the Satan’s Slaves, whose members are alleged to have provided the connecting tissue between the Solar Lodge, the Mansonites, the Ku Klux Klan and something the author refers to as the “Kirke Order of Dog Blood” (seriously, don’t ask). (4)

“There are subjects associated with the Manson case that are so soaked in evil that the mere knowing of them is like a nightmare,” Sanders states later in the book, kicking off a chapter in which he addresses rumours of unidentified Satanic groups (presumably, but not definitively, connected to the quasi-mythical Kirke mob referenced above) carrying out animal sacrifice / blood-drinking / orgy rituals on several remote West Coast beaches in 1968-69. Pretty hair-raising stuff.

Sanders goes on to print verbatim the transcript of an interview with a young male Manson Family hanger on, who claims to have been present at the Spahn Ranch when a set of films – apparently made by another cult group – were screened, depicting both the killing of domestic animals and the apparent decapitation of a human female, carried out in ritual circumstances on a nocturnal beach.

To be honest, the interviewee sounds pretty out of it, but Sanders insists that the information he provided on other subjects proved reliable, so – make of this what you will. As far as I’m aware, nothing concrete on any of this has ever come to light in subsequent decades, so by this stage, it’s nothing more than another sinister, apocryphal underground legend to add to the ever-growing bonfire of such, any grain of truth lost in a long-forgotten vortex of misfiled missing persons reports and blighted, undocumented lives.

In fact, Sanders seems to have had a real bee in his bonnet about the possibly that The Family may have filmed some of their own crimes (presumably using the equipment they stole from a CBS outside broadcast truck in early ’69?), repeatedly hinting that certain “uptight persons” are holding back information from him on this subject to protect their own skins. Whoever these “persons” were, they must have done a pretty good job, because again, fifty years on, this hypothetical footage remains elusive, insofar as I’m aware. (5)

Amid all this shady occult networking, I was surprised to note that Sanders’ book entirely overlooks Manson’s widely documented connections to that most infamous of Scientology spin-offs, The Process Church of the Final Judgement. The details of Manson’s interactions with The Process Church became public knowledge so early in the game that they even made it into New English Library’s otherwise largely fictitious Manson book (which I wrote about here), so it seemed surprising to me that Sanders would have ignored such a rich vein of High Weirdness.

Well, guess what – the first edition copy of ‘The Family’ consulted by writer John Anthony Day for this review, published in The Harvard Crimson magazine in 1971, apparently contained an extensive (indeed, the reviewer claims, excessive) amount of information concerning Manson’s connections to The Process. But, Day also notes that Robert De Grimston, founder of the Process Church, had launched a $1.5 million lawsuit against Sanders and his U.S. publishers. So, consulting the entirely Process-free 1973 U.K. paperback, we can probably guess how that worked out. (6)


Sanders’ narrative becomes even sketchier, and even more queasy, when he occasionally turns his attention to the wider scope of The Manson Family’s crimes – unsolved category. Basically this consists of a grim run down of unsolved killings (primarily rape-murders of young women, with a weirdo/mutilation element) which were committed during 1968-69, at points when Sanders’ research leads him to believe that members of The Family were in the immediate vicinity.

As you can well imagine, reading capsule summaries of these cold cases – each of them a potential mini-Black Dahlia, just waiting for the True Crime podcasters to descend – is a grim business, and I’m actually not sure which possibility is more disturbing to contemplate; that Tex, Clem, Charlie and the gang were occasionally enjoying a brutal “boy’s night out” as they drifted hither and yon across the West Coast, or alternatively, that these killings actually had nothing whatsoever to do with the easy scapegoat of Satanic psycho-hippies, instead simply representing yr average, run-of-the-mill crime stats for a large American state over a two year period, the faceless perpetrators simply blending back into the mainstream ebb-and-flow of society and keeping their heads down. (7)

Of all the legally dubious claims contained within ‘The Family’ however, Sanders perhaps sails closest to the wind when he isuggests a connection between Charles Manson and the Esalen Institute, a storied and influential spa resort and spiritual / therapeutic retreat based in Big Sur, which survives to this day.

These claims centre around the admittedly intriguing fact that, a week prior to the Tate-LaBianca killings, Manson seems to have jumped behind the wheel of a stolen Hostess Twinkie bakery truck and spent a weekend tooling around the Big Sur area – entirely on his own, unusually, although he did manage to recruit a new Family member / sex slave / punching bag (a pregnant seventeen-year-old named Stephanie) along the way.

Sanders believes that Manson travelled to Big Sur to visit Esalen, and indeed, various rumours to this effect swirl about the lower depths of online Manson-ology. This is significant due to the fact that Cielo Drive murder victim Abigail Folger was a frequent visitor to the Institute, and Sharon Tate may or may not have also attended at some point.

The suggestion of a tangible connection between Manson and his future victims is chilling enough in itself, but once again, Sanders over-plays his hand by stating, apparently apropos of nothing, that both Folger and Tate were present at Esalen on the same weekend that Manson allegedly visited – a suggestion which I’m sure is contradicted by the official record, if not elsewhere in this very book.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Esalen Institute have spent the past fifty years vigorously denying that Manson ever came anywhere near them (their statements on the matter have been pretty weird and contradictory however, but.. that’s another story), and indeed, Sanders reports that a cast iron veil of secrecy hangs over the whole affair, even stating that representatives of the Institute have issued what he describes as a “veiled snuff threat” against him, should he persist in pursuing the matter.

Was there another, subsequent edition of ‘The Family’ with the references to Esalen also redacted? I wouldn’t be surprised. (8)

Exactly how many re-drafts did the text of this book go through to avoid legal action, I wonder? Three, four? I mean, I’m guessing the Kirke Order of Dogs Blood were unlikely to put a call through to their lawyers, but even so, if Sanders took some of the stuff he reports here remotely seriously, he must have spent a few years in fear of waking up some dark night with the smell of axle grease in his nostrils and a curved blade pressed to his throat.


“There was one heavy problem facing Helter Skelter. By early 1969, the West Valley Station of the Los Angeles sheriff’s department had in use Bell-65 two-man helicopters with powerful searchlights installed that could light up a city block from 1000 feet in the air. Manson had various plans to deal with these helicopters. One was to attack the helicopter with magic. Another method was to thwart the helicopters at night by taping the headlights of the dune-buggy battalion with black tape, leaving only a small slit to allow a thin ray of light to escape, hopefully undetectable from the air.”
- p. 124

There is much more I could go on to say about other aspects of ‘The Family’; there is so much rich, soggy flesh here to pile onto the bones of the crazed milieu Manson and his followers operated within. Not least, the significant portion of the book which Sanders devotes to outlining the vast auto-theft / dune buggy manufacturing ring orchestrated by the Mansonites during their final months of freedom - an operation which proved necessary simply to keep the cult’s membership mobile and maintain supply lines across the incredibly inhospitable terrain which Charlie seemed increasingly fixated on forcing his followers to inhabit.

As is implied by the book’s memorable sub-title, Sanders details Manson’s apparent dream of drilling his Family into a unit of full on, ‘Road Warrior’ style desert outlaws, undertaking armed raids on the small towns bordering the Death Valley national monument, carrying off food and women like some kind of motorized neo-vikings, and bamboozling the cops from their impenetrable network of underground hidey-holes.

Even if they’d been left to their own devices however, the chances of The Family achieving this level of self-sufficient barbarity seems remote. Another thing that becomes clear from Sanders’ book is that, far from their rep as ruthless killers, these hapless hippies – many of them nursing either young children or severe mental illness by the time Helter Skelter took hold – were simply not prepared for the hardship of the desert.

As food and shelter became scarce, as Charlie became more violent and demanding, and as lines of communication between various outposts started to fray, The Family’s vital biker allies disappeared, and tertiary family members began drifting away at a steady rate, several of them walking vast distances across the desert in the search of help.

When a combination of armed police units and National Park officials finally began carrying out raids and pulling the Mansonites into custody on grand theft auto and arson charges in September/October 1969, the roving miscreants are reported to have been in an appalling physical condition, riddled with sores and parasites and caked in mud to protect themselves from the sun, the girls having tonsured and shaved their hair into bizarre, Mohawk-ish arrangements….. a far cry from the heady days of '68, when Gregg Jakobson and his fellow “golden penetrators” would cruise over to the group’s latest Hollywood hang-out to enjoy a few sexual favours in exchange for vague promises of booking Manson in for another studio session.

Where might this trip have ended, if the authorities hadn’t moved in to put a stop to it? Would the whitened bones of The Family’s hardcore members and assigned assassins now be buried in the sands of some distant canyon, as survivors of the nastier end of biker/field hippie sub-culture mutter darkly of their legend, and probable fate?

God knows, it certainly would have saved the State of California a lot of time and effort, and given a few generations of “transgressive culture” assholes and neo-nazis one less incarcerated icon to look up to.

Crazy, man. Crazy.

A song for the closing credits:


(1) I was initially shocked to hear that Tarantino (and, more to the point, the studio marketing bods backing him up) had decided to tie-in the release of their new movie with the anniversary of – uh - *a mass murder*, but cooled down after reflecting on Jello Biafra’s memorable answer to a question re: whether a Dead Kennedys concert on the anniversary of JFK’s shooting was in good taste: “well, the assassination wasn’t very tasteful either”.

(2) It is interesting to note that, despite his racism, misogyny and relentless enthusiasm for heterosexual congress, Manson never seems to have espoused any homophobic sentiments, having spent much of his of early life exploring the “other side of the tracks” whilst incarcerated.

(3) Those wishing to journey further down the Brayton / Solar Lodge rabbit hole are advised to begin here.

(4) Trying to google up some info on the Satan’s Slaves who were active in California in the mid/late ‘60s turns up practically nothing, beyond the knowledge that dozens of other motorcycle clubs have used the same name over the years (most prominently in the U.K.), and a reference to a California-based gang bearing that name who were “patched over” by (ie, incorporated into) The Hell’s Angels in 1978.

(5) Adult film fans with a stronger stomach for research than myself may wish to take note of the following paragraph, from p. 126: “Around this time [January 1969] Charlie and the girls made a pornographic movie by the swimming pool at 2600 Nicholas Canyon Road in the hills above Malibu. The producer, according to Los Angeles homicide officers, was Marvin Miller.” Your safety filter-free search engine of choice awaits.

(6) It seems ironic in the extreme that De Grimston should have filed for defamation against Sanders in the same year that The Process Church’s official magazine proudly published an article dictated by Manson from his prison cell, but Jesus/God/Lucifer/Satan moves in mysterious ways I suppose.

(7) The timeframe of Sanders’ book, it should be noted, discounts the inclusion of the several rather more compelling “officially unsolved” murder cases which sprang up in parallel with the trial of Manson and his co-defendants during 1970, including the violent death of at least one woman who severed ties with the remnants of The Family, and the mysterious disappearance of a controversial and reportedly incompetent attorney who for a time was representing several of the Mansonites in court… until he reportedly went on a camping holiday and never returned, delaying the trial for several weeks as a result. But, this isn’t a True Crime blog, so I’ll shut up now, and let you investigate further, should you wish to.

(8) If you’ve somehow found your way out of the other internet wormholes I’ve dumped on you so far in this post, take a leap into this one for everything you need to know re: Manson and Esalen. My own takeaway is that, compared to a lot of these rumours, the kernel of this one actually seems pretty plausible. 

I mean, it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that Charlie may have called on the Institute, either to try to connive his way in as a guest lecturer/visiting guru, or to audition for someone involved in organising Esalen’s annual folk festival, and that he may have subsequently kept quiet about it to salve his ego after the Institute - known for its tight security and elitest attitude - presumably just told him to get lost.

From there, is it too much of a stretch to suggest that, in the depths of his enraged, stoned/paranoid mind, he might have pegged the Esalen crowd as the same “type” he encountered when he scoped out 10050 Cielo Drive in search of Terry Melcher? And, a week later, Helter Skelter time? We will likely never know, but hey - it’s a theory. What’s that? Oh yeah, NOT A TRUE CRIME BLOG. Sorry.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Blood Island Journal # 4:
The Blood Drinkers
(Gerardo de Leon, 1964)

Previously in this hastily scribbled and mysteriously stained journal, we’ve raised the question of what exactly happened vis-a-vis the career of Filipino horror auteur Gerard de Leon in the interim between the sombre professionalism of 1959’s Terror is a Man and the outrageous Tiki bar camp of 1968’s Brides of Blood. 1964’s ‘The Blood Drinkers’ is the answer, and I’m happy to report that it is a very satisfactory answer indeed.

Originally filmed in the Tagalog language under the slightly more poetic title ‘Kulay Dugo Ang Gabi’ [“Blood is the Colour of the Night”] and re-cut and re-dubbed for U.S. audiences shortly thereafter, ‘The Blood Drinkers’ turns out in fact to be an under-appreciated masterwork of world-wide weird gothic cinema – a uniquely oneiric excursion into monster movie dream-space, in which ‘logic’ and ‘narrative’ are reduced to distant, blurry figures waving vainly from the far-off hills, whilst de Leon instead conjures a pungent, indelible atmosphere that at various points bears comparison to the work of Jean Rollin, José Mojica Marins, and the productions of Abel Salazar’s Cinematográfica ABSA in Mexico.

So, yes, basically what I’m saying is, if you were to boil down all of your old Mondo Macabro DVDs into a magic potion, drinking it would probably produce a vision rather like ‘The Blood Drinkers’. I hope I’m not over-selling it, but seriously folks, this is great stuff.

One thing that immediately differentiates ‘The Blood Drinkers’ from the Blood Island movies is the lack of American involvement on the production side. Both de Leon’s regular collaborator Eddie Romero and U.S. co-producer Kane Lynn are notably absent from the credits, with future action-exploitation kingpin Cirio H. Santiago instead acting as sole producer.

As noted, the film was shot in Tagalog, presumably with the expectation that a local audience might actually want to watch it, and – joy of joys – it features no slumming American b-movie actors in garish short-sleeved shirts uncomfortably wiping sweat from their brows. (“It’s nice to know the Filipinos can make a monster movie without John Ashley,” cracked Michael Weldon in his Psychotronic Encyclopaedia of Film.)

This lack of foreign investment carries with it an accompanying lack of budgetary resources which, strangely, actually works in the film’s favour in some respects. Most notably, a shortage of colour film stock led to the majority of the film being shot in black and white, heavily tinted in post-production with a wild array of hues (red, blue, purple, and everything in between) to give the illusion of colour – a technique which I don’t think had been used this extensively since the silent era.

Although this could easily have been seen at the time as a cheap, misleading gimmick, in retrospect the decision to use tinted B&W was inspired. It lends ‘The Blood Drinkers’ a ‘feel’ that is entirely unique within ‘60s horror, and, whereas the film’s few genuine colour sequences (used to differentiate scenes of ‘normal’, everyday life) look blurry and drab, as if shot with sub-par, bin-salvaged stock, the quality of the black & white photography (courtesy of veteran Filipino DP Felipe Sacdalan) is frequently magnificent.

The antiquated aura created by the tinting process is furthered when, straight out of the credits (blaring, ‘40s Universal style music needle-dropped over crude, blood-dripping typography – very Coffin Joe), we see an extremely ornate Victorian funeral carriage (where on earth did they find one of those in Manilla?!) rolling down an uneven country road, in shots that look as if they could have come straight from Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’ or Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’… until that is, we see a (presumably contemporary) black-finned American sedan following close behind.

If the temporal dissonance created by this seems strange, it’s as nothing compared to the raw weirdness generated by the crew who eventually disembark from these vehicles, after they’ve passed through the spiked iron gates of the obligatory crumbling, colonial-era mansion.

I may not have been very impressed by Ronald Remy as the Mad Doctor of Blood Island, but rewind a few years and he’s absolutely fantastic here as Dr Marco (note THAT surname), our resident vampire overlord. (Yes, the vampire is also a scientist, got a problem with that?)

Bearing a passing resemblance to a shaven-headed Marlon Brando (imagine if he’d played Colonel Kurtz ten years earlier in life and you’ll get the general idea), Remy projects a sinister and imposing screen presence, communicating with his underlings using dramatic, sweeping hand gestures, and modelling a fetching pair of futuristic, wraparound shades alongside his regulation opera cape and crumpled evening dress.

Clearly a “belt and braces” kind of guy when it comes to assistants, Dr Marco employs the services of both a capering dwarf and a snaggle-toothed hunchback, and he is also accompanied by an impossibly beautiful young woman, who also sports shades and, in this opening scene, wears a glistening snake-skin dress. Played by Eva Montes and credited as ‘Tanya, the Vampire Bride’ on IMDB, this woman’s taciturn, unexplained presence - reminiscent of Vulnavia in the Dr. Phibes movies - adds greatly to the film’s eerie atmos, not to mention its subliminal erotic charge.

Completing this uncanny procession is a middle-aged lady in a heavy black shawl – she turns out to be the aristocratic mother of the deceased – and of course, the occupant of the hearse herself: the perfectly preserved body of the woman who turns out to be Dr Marco’s Great Love.

Now, personally I would have thought physical death was more or less compulsory for the romantic partner of a vampire, so I’m not sure what the assembled weirdos are all so upset about, but hey, I don’t write these things. Anyway, Dr Marco seems determined to revive his beloved – “in all other matters I have risen above human feelings, but I MUST save Katerina,” he declares at one point. So, before you know it, she is laid out on the slab in the mansion’s cramped chapel of rest, hooked up to his ramshackle array of whirring mad scientist machinery (it mostly looks like WWII-era radio equipment?).

In order to save Katerina, the Doctor announces, he will need to claim the still-beating heart of her estranged sister, who lives down in the village, blissfully unaware of all this. Said sister turns out to be our soon-to-be-long-suffering heroine Charita (Amalia Fuentes, who naturally also plays Katerina with the aid of an unflattering blond wig), and the vampiric cohort begin their plans for her by promptly murdering the elderly adoptive parents to whom Charita’s mother abandoned her twenty years earlier. Nasty.

At the funeral, Chairta’s birth mother (posing as her aunt) basically tells her, “ok, you must come and live with me now”, and her surviving male relative and the local priest are both like, “yeah, I guess that’s probably the best thing to do here” – but Charita herself is unsure. In particular, she is anxious about the fact that she and her deceased parents seemed to be operating some kind of proto-Air B&B / guesthouse type arrangement, and that some guests – Victor (handsome young Eddie Fernandez) and his two sisters – have arrived from the city in a shiny red convertible, unaware of their hostess’s travails.

Thankfully though, Victor and the girls are nice folks, so they understand that Charita might not have had a chance to make the beds and so on - and indeed, they turn out to be happy to help her out in her fight against the vampire and his weird minions, which is super lovely of them.(1)

And…. that’s about all we’re getting here in terms of plot, which is fine by me. The remainder of the film basically consists of a long series of nocturnal stalkings, random vampiric encounters, eerie, fog-shrouded mesmerism and stern lectures on vampire lore, all of which tend to blur into one, in the best possible way.

In a sense, this mirrors the kind of “characters wandering around bumping into each other” stuff that blights the middle acts of the Blood Island films, but the superior artistry and atmosphere of ‘The Blood Drinkers’ manages to transform this directionless drift into a far more pleasing sensation of woozy, nightmarish delirium, comparable to that subsequently perfected in Europe by the ‘Erotic Castle Movies’ of the early 1970s.

In one particularly startling ‘primal scene’, Charita is awakened in night, only to find the ravenous zombified corpses of her recently buried parents stomping toward her in their grave-clothes. They proceed to man-handle her and attempt to chew her neck with their newly acquired fangs, until Dr Marco materialises out of the darkness and begins flagellating his badly behave undead minions with a giant bull-whip! Holy hell.

Elsewhere, Tanya and Katerina (who now seems to be wandering around under her own steam after drinking some blood, so I’m not sure where that leaves the plot…?) emerge from massive banks of fog (seriously, this film goes toe-to-toe with 1960’s ‘City of the Dead’ for sheer quantity of dry ice), diaphanous gowns swirling as they sl-o-o-w-l-y approach their hypnotised victims, Theremin blaring wildly on the soundtrack. It is all absolutely marvellous.

Until I watched ‘The Blood Drinkers’, I was unaware that the concept of “too much theremin” was one that I would ever need to acknowledge in waking life, but verily, this film’s soundtrack (music “directed” by Tito Arevalo, although I don’t know whether any cues were actually recorded specifically for the movie) has TOO MUCH THEREMIN.

Meanwhile, Victor gets stuck into some creditable punch ups with the hunchback and the dwarf, and Dr Marco calls upon the services of BASRA, seemingly some kind of supernatural bat spirit thing which hovers over him in the form of an adorable flappy-winged bat puppet.

Apparently this whole Basra business was the invention of the film’s American distributors at Hemisphere Pictures, who, whilst recutting the film for the U.S. market, decided that they liked a few brief close up shots of the bat so much, they determined to repeat them about twenty times over the course of the film, giving it a name, and inserting accompanying reaction shots of Ronald Remy singing its praises!

A bastardisation of de Leon’s original film? No doubt, but with the director’s initial Tagalog cut apparently lost to the ages (most likely a victim of vintage Filipino cinema’s catastrophically low survival rate), we’re stuck with Hemisphere’s version, and personally I’m more than happy to accept Basra and his repetitious antics as yet another loopy element crammed into an already rich smorgasbord of demented horror movie imagery. In fact, I really love the little fella. Look at him go!

“Remember my dear, the colour is blood red. Basra is calling, you must discard all other thoughts... you shall utter no word without the permission of BASRA. Remember Basra is your master, Basra is watching!”

As is clearly signalled by the fact that our head vampire is also a scientist (who also seems to venerate some kind of god-bat), ‘The Blood Drinkers’ take on the whole “science vs religion” thing as regards vampirism is a bit confused, to say the least.

At one point, the good guys consult the local priest (voiced in the English dub by your friend and mine, Mr Vic Diaz, who also provides the film’s totally redundant voiceover narration). “Vampires, vampires, ah – here we are,” the priest mutters as he runs his finger down the index of his Big Black Book of Evil (every clergyman should have one), and, facts suitably checked, proceeds to lay down the lore.

Interestingly, the priest insists that stakes plunged into the hearts of the undead must be wooden, because, and I quote, “the mysterious germ, the bacillis vampiris, creates in the body of the vampire a fluid which is similar in chemical composition to that of glue”. This means that they cannot be harmed by bullets, but, “wood turns the glue into water”. Curious stuff indeed.

Subsequently, the priest also clarifies that, “vampires are not afraid of the cross, it is the icon’s reflection that they really fear; they're afraid of the glare of the light”, so, uh… ok, bearing in mind that this movie was probably dubbed into English on a pretty tight deadline, I’m just going to leave that there for more pedantic souls than myself to unpack.

Despite these pseudo-scientific musings however, the priest soon pulls himself together and remembers who’s paying his wages, telling Charita, “there is something more valuable than bullets or wooden stakes, and that is... prayer and faith my child!”

Elsewhere, the Catholic background of Filipino culture makes itself strongly felt, as de Leon fills his mise en scene with crosses, crucifixes, rosary beads and chintzy porcelain icons of one kind or another, and, as things progress, the film seems to follow the lead of its resident spiritual advisor by doubling down on the more church-y side of the equation.

Following a midnight mass and ad-hoc exorcism session at the high altar, the power of our heroes’ collective prayer seems to instigate an extraordinary sequence in which Dr Marco and Katerina awake, apparently freed from their vampiric curse, and emerge into the world of full colour, walking hand in hand through an over-saturated, sun-dappled rose garden. An intoxicating, weirdly moving, non-sequitur, this scene feels almost like a lost fragment from a ‘40s Powell & Pressburger film, encouraging us to feel a certain empathy for the austere romantic dignity displayed by the previously monstrous Dr Marco.

It also feels very much like it should be an ending, but, there’s still twenty minutes left on the clock so, inevitably, things don’t work out for the immortal lovers, and we’re soon back in the blood red netherworld of Basra and Gordo the hunchback for a final good vs evil showdown, including the extraordinary sight of the priest, bible in hand, leading a cross and torch bearing procession of robed church-goers, who square off in the graveyard against Dr Marco’s ever-growing army of the undead. (So, not much room for ambiguity there vis-a-vis the film’s religious intent!)

As more open-minded vintage horror fans will be well aware, the explosion of regional gothic horror production which spread across the world in the wake of Hammer’s ‘Dracula’ (and, to a lesser extent, AIP’s Poe cycle) in the 1960s was a rare and wonderful thing to behold. The progress of this wave can literally be traced border to border across the entire globe, but, within the further reaches of the cycle, I’d go so far as to say that ‘The Blood Drinkers’ is probably the best explicitly Western-influenced ‘60s gothic horror film I’ve ever seen from an Asian country - a heavily qualified boast perhaps, but an impressive one nonetheless.

In view of the presumably minimal resources available to them, the film stands as an extraordinary achievement on the part of de Leon and his collaborators. Over half a century later, it stands out for its beautiful photography, intelligent and emotionally engaged direction and wildly imaginative production design, as well as for its richly pungent atmospherics and – die-hard gothic horror viewers should take particular note of this final point – for its *pacing*.

Yes, within the context of its oft-plodding genre, ‘The Blood Drinkers’ moves like a rocket, with almost non-stop spooky action, and relatively little dialogue-based down-time. Imagine - a ‘60s gothic horror without any stuffy scenes in which people sit around an oversized dining table making awkward small talk, and get shown to their rooms because they must be tired from their long journey etc. Incredible though it may seem, Gerardo de Leon proved it was possible. Praise the lord, or Basra, or whoever!


(1) Checking out Eddie Fernandez’s IMDB profile reveals a whole secret history of (now presumably lost) Filipino crime movies and spy adventures, informing us that he appeared “in the title role” of ‘Johnny Oro: Kaaway ng Krimen’, ‘Hong Kong 999’, ‘Triggerman’, ‘Wanted: Johnny L’ and ‘The Lucky 9 Commandos’, amongst others. Oh, for a time machine, and the necessary funding to establish a temperature-controlled film preservation facility in Manila circa 1966, etc.