We all know that the late sixties/early seventies was a time of social and political turmoil here in the good ol’ U. S. of A.; the war in Vietnam was in full swing, and the flower children of the “Love Generation” were slowly growing up and being folded into the mix of society, whether they wanted to be or not. As a consequence, there was an entire sub-generation coming up that were receiving mixed signals to a large degree, finding it difficult to find a place to belong and a purpose in life…and that didn’t always work out so well. Y’see, there’s nothing like disillusioned youth running into either insanity or treachery to really create a bad situation; Manson family, anyone? If the JFK assassination was when America lost its innocence, then the Tate-LaBianca murders were when it finally began bolting its doors and fearing its own children. Films of the era, as is always the case, held up a twisted funhouse mirror to this unrest; as a result, some really good films (including those of our beloved genre) came to be: Badlands…The Texas Chain Saw Massacre…even The Exorcist carried the torch for the fears that the establishment held for the up-and-coming generation. Besides these shining examples, if you look to the lower-end, drive-in and 42nd Street b-reel productions of the time, you’ll find countless more examples of “youth-gone-wild” and hostile teens that served to bolster the terror felt by older people, and give the troubled, lonely youth of the time some very bad behavioral examples whilst trying to appeal to their wallets.
One film from that turbulent period was clearly a take on both the vampire craze that American and especially British cinema was riding and the troubled socio-political climate gripping the nation; it used Charles Manson and his manipulation of his youthful “family” as it’s template, and quietly crept onto screens back in 1972: The Deathmaster.
A quiet ritual with incense and flute-playing takes place on a California shore, the result of which is a waterlogged old coffin washes up on the beach; a coffin that later is revealed to hold an ancient and powerful vampire who calls himself Khorda. Khorda finds a disenfranchised group comprised of hippie potheads and motorcycle gang members living in a pretty swanky seaside manse; using cheap parlor tricks and high-minded talk of life, love, and destiny, he effortlessly manipulates his way into not only joining their little commune, but holding iron-fisted sway over it. It’s only a very short time later that the young people virtually jump at his command, the spreading of his undead affliction uniting them as his “family” in a very real sense; any who oppose or speak out are harshly and quite finally dealt with. One exception to this is young, spirited Pico, who is able to extricate himself from the group after discovering the horror of the supernatural influence of the stranger. Seeking help, he finds that the police are not immune to the charm and sophistication of Khorda, and even worse, his girlfriend, Rona, has fallen under his devious spell. He enlists the aid of Pop, a kindly old shopkeeper that’s a friend to the commune, to help him save Rona and the others, but will youthful strength and aged wisdom be enough to overcome the timeless evil that has implanted itself?
Besides being a typical American International Pictures release (inexpensive, quick, and somewhat campy), this flick is interesting because of what you don’t see; there’s only the quickest flash of nudity, and no gore at all to speak of; simply a little blood trickle from a mouth or two, and a little bit of the red stuff smeared on a face and a blade for a few seconds. Now, I didn’t say that it made the film great, just interesting. If you’re like me, you pretty much expect there to be some boobs, blood, and gore in a b-grade vampire flick made in the heyday of exploitation; still, the fact that the film still accomplishes some creep factor even with this near-prudish mindset is somewhat impressive. Director Ray Danton managed some very nice photography for this cheapie, and this higher level of skill behind the camera elevates the film somewhat. Add in the excellent abilitites of Robert Quarry, and you get a early seventies vamp flick that’s better than it really should have been; Quarry’s admittedly Manson-inspired appearance and his slathered-on eloquence infecting his “flock” as surely as the vampirism was a chilling reflection of the times. Aside from this performance, however, the acting tended to be a little on the flat side, and much more the norm for this type of film (in fairness, other actors in the film, including Bill Ewing, William Jordan, and Brenda Dickson, were mostly first-timers to features, and didn’t have a lot of room in the script to shine; the sterling exception is familiar character actor John Fiedler as Pop, a kind of “hippie grandpa”).
The dialogue was just a bit stilted at times…OK, fine, it was seriously stilted…with lines like “I’m gonna go to town for some steak and whisky!” and “We don’t know where you’re at, man!” filling out the scenes, you’ll find yourself wondering if someone maybe slipped YOU some drugs before you started watching. Other elements of the script seemed pretty out there, as well: Why is it that sleeping vampires don’t dissolve/explode/crumble to dust in the sunlight? Why in the hell does a vampire keep leeches for pets? Why establish a character’s “gung-fu” skills early on, only to see him flail around like a coked-up schoolgirl when faced with opponents later? Why would vampires attack the fuzzy dogs of people that they’re pissed at, rather than the people themselves? Why would a vampire proclaiming himself to be thousands of years old pull one of the most bone-headedly stupid and self-destructive moves in the history of the vampire cinema?
I’ll tell you why, peeps; because it’s cheap, b-movie horror goodness from 1972, that’s why. If you can’t dig that, you won’t like the movie; simple as that.
The technical merits I mentioned and Quarry’s acting are able to pull this film up to be a decent enough way to kill an hour and a half or so, but it’s not something that I’ll re-visit with any great frequency; I’ll save those extra hours of my life for better bloodsucker flicks of that period, like Blacula, The Night Stalker, and Quarry’s own two (far superior) vampire movies, Count Yorga and The Return of Count Yorga.
Still, I can’t totally trash this little money-grabber, either; it has a certain charm that folks like me can’t help but appreciate, but it’s really only the die-hard fans of these kind o’ films that will enjoy it.
If that’s you, then check it out! If it’s not…well, do as you like, but I warned ya.
Anybody got change for a nickel?