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.

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