Slaughter of the Vampires (aka, Curse of the Blood Ghouls) (Robert Mauri, 1962) & God Told Me To (aka, Demon) (Larry Cohen, 1976)
T’was an early 16mm Halloween double feature of catchy-titled genre pics, programmed by the always adventurous head honcho of Montreal’s longest running film society (and when I say ‘film’, that means celluloid only! Digital mediums need not apply!) and I was fortunate enough to find myself on the guest list.
With two features on the agenda, Phil didn’t bulk up on the pre-movie treats this time, instead sticking to a few carefully chosen Universal horror movie trailers (black and white, including one for the much-beloved Creature from the Black Lagoon, though not selling the 3D version) to capture our attention before moving on to the monochromatically-shot first feature.
And “Slaughter” starts out with a startlingly captivating prologue (I believe it was excised from the American cut, the more luridly sensationally titled Curse of the Blood Ghouls, which is too bad as it’s by far the best sequence in the film) culminating in a brazen moment of brutality, with two terrified on-the-run vamps finally cornered by an unruly mob (with their village peasant dress, pitchforks and torches immediately announcing the film as a period piece), leading to the male vamp (Dieter Eppler, playing the Dracula stand-in of the film) forced to abandon his love, leaving her behind to literally be, apropos to the title, slaughtered by the villagers.
The focus on the urgent fear of the vampires creates an unexpected sympathy with the monsters (and a greater potency to that ‘Slaughter’ title), as we watch the shrieking female vamp flailing helplessly at the faceless rabble swarming over her, relentlessly stabbing at her, and had me excitingly wondering if I wasn’t about to embark on a lost masterpiece…
Alas, “Slaughter” moves into much less exciting terrain, turning into a fairly staid “Dracula” retread (only minus the first act of real estate broker Renfield captured in Castle Dracula, visited by all those delectable female vamps at night), with a handsome and privileged newlywed couple acquiring a country castle, only to have the groom watch helplessly as his bride’s health declines as the seemingly hypnotic spell over her of that mysterious and alluring Baron who lives in the mansion next door (ie, the vamp from the prologue) grows.
Along with a (relatively unimposing) Dracula figure, the film comes complete with a Harker (the groom), a Mina (the main focus of the vamp Baron’s attention) and, of course, a Van Helsing (a character amusingly given the name Dr Nietzche, which had me wondering if this was an inspiration of the English dubbers, or if it was his actual name in the original) – though this version of the good doc is no world-weary wisdom-filled vamp killer, but a much more unassuming figure, initially as clueless to the shadowy existence of the creatures of the night as our male hero (if you’re looking for Cushing, you won’t find him here).
While there’s some proper atmosphere created through the black and white photography, European castle setting and proper gothic costuming, the story and presentation are slow going, never again coming (or seemingly aspiring to come) anywhere near the power of its feverish opening vision (which leaves me thinking… one simulacrum from “Dracula” left out that might have really helped liven up the proceedings would have been the maniacally-laughing bug-chomping maniac Renfield).
Perhaps a dash or two of some gory goods delivered along the way would have also helped but while the occasional stakes are at least oft-delivered into appealingly swelling bosoms, they come with nary a hint of any internal liquid (let alone a good ol’ metaphorical spurt on impact!)… then again, the film’s opening hasn’t a drop of blood either (noticeably absent in the middle of a vamp slaughter, no less!), yet that didn’t make it any less memorable. Speaking of those bulbous bosoms, however, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a high point of the final act which finds the transformed Mina breathlessly hurrying up and down the shadowy castle staircases in an evocatively flowing white nightgown that is notable at least for just how much, and for how long, that gorgeous face-burrowing cleavage bounces about…
Next up, in full color (as much as the slightly tattered print could muster up anyway, which wasn’t half bad) was the true shining star – the pièce de résistance – of the evening, God Told Me To (hell, I’m even partial towards “Demon”), a particularly idiosyncratic work from one of the genre legends of the 70’s, Larry Cohen, a filmmaker with decidedly Leftie-leanings — though I have to interrupt myself here (not that that’s a rare occasion with all the labyrinthian parentheticals I’m always interrupting myself with) to mention I no longer use that last ideological description (ie, ‘Leftie’) with the same weight as I used to, as the late Cohen – similar to just about every other one of my 70’s heroes, from both film and music – once revered for what seemed actual radically progressive themes, including a deep cynicism for authority – was easily hoodwinked into becoming a supporter of the war-mongering pro-corporate establishment – seduced (somehow) by slimy figures like the Clintons, even driven into that silly fevered Trump Hysteria Syndrome (“he’s a Nazi puppet of the Russians!”), a particular mental insanity which has led directly to the encroaching fascist-like State we have now… with the difference being guys like Cohen would have stood against these toweringly corrupt figures then, rather than ignorantly embracing them as he did at the end).
While Cohen’s films usually lie in the direction of criticizing corporate power, whether through tales of monster babies created as a result of greedy pharmaceutical companies (as in his classic “It’s Alive” trilogy) or killer alien desserts created by the uncaring food industry for consumer society (the much more loopy and comic The Stuff), God Told Me To has the filmmaker delving into all sorts of wild surprisingly new directions (including some early, way pre-fashionable Queer-terrain — and when I say wild, I’m talking ‘alien abduction creating a hermaphrodite killer Christ figure who desires to have sex with his brother’ wild).
Maybe it’s the intense central performance by Tony Lo Bianca (in by far the greatest, most adventurous and memorable role of his career, for an actor most notable for playing secondary small-time mob parts in 70’s films) as Det Lt Nicholas, whose lead investigation into the sudden rash of regular folk inexplicably gone mad, going on killing sprees, with ‘God told me to’ as their shared final statement, has him questioning his life-long sense of ‘otherness’, as well as growing terrifying questions on what might be his own connections to the case, and the demonic figure behind it. Or its philosophical dealings with the iconography of religion, an avenue of exploration I don’t think of Cohen as usually delving into (while he might be a Jew and the story is wrapped around Catholicism – it’s still dealing explicitly with the concept of the surface presentation of a religion which allows its adherent, in this case the devout Nicholas, to wrap its iconography around himself to hide his true nature and connection not only to the mass killings but the glowing alien hermaphrodite that wants to procreate with him by having the understandably reticent cop stick his shlong in the vagina-like opening in the spiritual creature’s side – yes, you heard that right. Cronenberg had nothing on Cohen with this film!). Whatever it is, while Cohen’s aesthetic remains as guerilla style as ever, it all comes together with the sense of being Cohen’s mostly deeply personal film; and if isn’t that? It’s certainly his most intimate.
Ending the night on the Larry Cohen masterpiece (did I mention the odd cameo by the late bizarro comedian Andy Kaufman, in the midst of his 15 minutes, as a policeman who goes nutso at the St Patrick’s Day parade, most of the footage which the notorious guerilla filmmaking Cohen stole?), with Lo Bianco looking directly at the (suddenly meta-)camera and saying “God Told Me To” with a knowing glint in his eye, was a perfect sign-off not only for a film that remains as subversive feeling today as it must have 45 years ago upon its release, but also on an enjoyable genre night at the Cinéclub headquarters.
And while “Slaughter” was no great shakes, it was that quick yet resonant vision of a bloodthirsty unreasonable horde meeting out mob justice that makes it worthwhile; akin to the condemning visions of cinematic master Fritz Lang, whose films were oft-haunted by images of the mass hypnosis he witnessed firsthand enthralling the people of Nazi Germany.
Makes me wonder what Fritz would think of the much larger global irrational mass hypnosis going on right now (that, alas, as I said, knowing already his misguided leanings before his death, I’m quite sure Cohen would be there right along with the corporate-manufactured anti-science hysteria and the brewing ostracization of anyone who dares not submit to the double and triple jabby-jabs — with ironically the more authoritarian lockdown measures currently rearing their head in Austria, the very breeding ground for that little mustachioed ruler we all love to hate, Sir Adolph himself). I would imagine (and hope), with the harrowing irrational behaviours Lang bore witness to – and the recognition of how easily the masses can be swayed en masse into demonizing a group – that he would have seen through the current propaganda and would have resisted… though you never know, he could have fallen sway, like the majority has… and like every once-worshipped 70’s figure pretty much has.
Now put on your mask, get out there and get that fourth jabby-jab!