Written by: Herbert L. Strock
Directed by: Robert Wise
Starring: Sandra Harrison, Louise Lewis, and Gail Ganley
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Who am I? What am I doing, I - I'm living a nightmare!"
American International Pictures rose to prominence mostly by catering to teenagers, a demographic shift that represents one of the most seismic movements in Hollywood history. Not only did it result in the popularity of the teen movie, but that influence diffused across most of the industry, transforming entire genres to cater to the whims of teens. From car pics to high school gang exploitation movies, teens were suddenly represented on-screen in all walks of life. It was only natural that horror would become a kidís game, and AIP delivered with I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Werewolf, two seminal adolescent terrors from this movement. Released months apart in 1957, this Herman Cohen-produced duo endures as some of the better testaments to the studioís commitment to its teenage audience. But they were joined by another movie that year in Blood of Dracula, which could have easily been titled I Was a Teenage Vampire. In fact, itís pretty much a direct riff on Teenage Werewolf, so much so that it could practically be considered a remake. Thatís right: AIP was doing gender-swapped remakes of their own movies within months back in the 50s. Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson were true pioneers. Name a more iconic duo--Iíll wait.
At any rate, the deja vu here is pretty thick and probably accounts for Blood of Draculaís more obscure status. Once again, weíve got a moody, troubled teen in Nancy Perkins (Sandra Harrison), whoís mad that her dad has already re-married just six weeks after her motherís untimely passing. The old man doesnít know what to do with her, so heís shipping her off to a boarding school, where she immediately runs afoul of the cliquish girls who run the place. Her moodiness makes her the perfect mark for Miss Branding (Louise Lewis), a chemistry teacher who experiments with hypnosis in the hopes of unlocking a terrible power within humanity that will convince scientists to stop toying with nuclear power. I am not sure about the math there, but she does successfully conjure up Nancyís primal, vampiric instincts and causes the poor girl to rampage about the campus.
Not that I Was a Teenage Werewolf exactly withstands the scrutiny of science, but the plot here is exactly the sort of nonsense youíd expect to get from an exploitation outfit redoing their own movie in order to capitalize on its success in less than six months. Itís fair to say that this is actually Draculasploitation since the countís name isnít even officially invoked. Instead, Branding hypnotizes Nancy with an amulet that once belonged to a distinguished family in the Carpathian mountains, leading the audience to believe that maybe Draculaís spirit is inhabiting the girlís body. Thatís not the case, though--we really are just dealing with the vague notion that someone can be hypnotized into becoming a vampire, complete with the fangs and everything. The only time we do hear about the count, itís when one of the police detectives says the corpses remind him of an old Eastern European legend about vampires--or ďdraculas,Ē which is the preferred nomenclature for dads and grandpas everywhere.
Of course, everyone laughs off such a suggestion, allowing Branding to continue her work undetected. Considering the era and the 69-minute runtime, itís not surprising that this doesnít entail a ton of carnage (and no blood, despite the title). The first murder is shot from Nancyís POV, and she only manages to knock off two more classmates in bloodless fashion. But the latter also takes place in a cemetery during a Halloween night scavenger hunt and all the atmosphere and holiday trimming that entails. Blood of Dracula doesnít give you a whole lot, so you have to latch onto these and other little embellishments, like the entire musical number nestled right into the middle of the movie. (This, too, is a holdover from Teenage Werewolf but is certainly permissible because most movies should probably feature a random musical number.)
Even though Blood of Dracula is light on incident, it has some thematic and subtextual intrigue to set it apart from its predecessor. Where Teenage Werewolf feels like a general allegory for adolescence, thereís something more interesting lurking in the specifically feminine dimension of this tale. Branding specifically bemoans how men will abuse nuclear power to lay waste to the world, positioning the female conscience as a sort of corrective. But, of course, sheís also the mad scientist of this tale, and it must be noted that she has to unlock this vague, primal force from a teenage girl, so we should probably pump the breaks on any notions of feminism, especially when the script takes the premise to its logical extreme. Like Teenage Werewolf, this one ends on a bleak note, one that suggests that this female ambition and power must be kept in check to keep order restored. So many films of this era reflect the anxiety of the atomic age, but this one seems to insinuate that any attempts to curb it--especially any attempts by a woman--is bad, actually. Nancy is a victim of a womanís unchecked ambition, which maybe wouldnít have happened had Branding just stayed in her lane and taught chemistry. Maybe goobers didnít care about protesting this gender-swapped redux because Blood of Dracula eventually restores the status quo, with the women gruesomely put into their places as survivors preach platitudes about the destructiveness of twisting and perverting knowledge for evil. (Presumably, the nuclear scientists Branding wants to stop are let off the hook.)
Mixed messages aside, Blood of Dracula is a typically solid AIP production. Sharply directed by Herbert Strock (who also directed Teenage Frankenstein), its zippy energy makes for an easygoing watch. With the exception of some obviously janky day-for-night shots, the black-and-white photography creates that suitably chilling matinee creepshow sort of vibe. Harrison is also a compelling presence in her first and only lead role; she brings a raw authenticity to Nancy that feels more genuine than the more mannered performances from this era. Her angst is palpable, and her sass game is totally on-point. Truth be told, itís too bad Blood of Dracula doesnít hold more sympathy for her because thereís a really interesting story about a girl being dumped into a boarding school, where she comes into her own under the tutelage of a weird professor.
But Blood of Dracula isnít really interested in being that sort of movie, so weíre left with a half-hearted retread of its more iconic predecessor. This one can get the last laugh though, at least for now: for whatever reason neither Teenage Werewolf nor Teenage Frankenstein have been released on DVD. Meanwhile, Blood of Dracula found its way onto the format as a double feature with fellow deja-vu programmer How to Make a Monster as part of Lionsgateís Samuel Z. Arkoff collection. Itís also currently streaming in HD via Shout Factory, which suggests a Blu-ray might also be in the works for this one, especially since the label has been recently releasing similar AIP productions from this era. Hopefully, whatever rights issues are hanging up its more famous brethren can be sorted out too. Thereís room for all monsters at this table. Well, except for the ones holding political office. I Was a Teenage Republican--now thereís a real nightmare.
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