So we're doing a John Carradine tribute this month at the B-Masters' Cabal, and ever since the topic was decided upon I've intended to review the Al Adamson anticlassic, Blood of Dracula's Castle. Maybe I will yet. But this particular roundtable comes at the most frantically busy part of an especially busy (and frantic) year. When I finally found myself with enough time to sit down and re-watch Adamson's movie, my brain started blowing raspberries. "THPTHT!" it said; "THPTHT! THPHTHPTHT!" My readers have come to expect something at least marginally more literate than this, so until I manage to recover my wits, I've decided to tackle a different Carradine movie from the same weird period in his life.
Blood of Dracula's Castle, the movie I started out to review, was a tongue-in-cheek spoof about modern vampires living in the California desert. It was Carradine's first experience working with Al Adamson. That film was shot some time around 1965, I think... though the movie was foreclosed upon by the developing lab and remained unreleased until 1969 (my cats shredded my copy of "Schlock-o-Rama", the Adamson biography, so I've been unable to check the date with any accuracy). Before Adamson's movie was actually released into theaters, Carradine traveled to Mexico to make another absolutely terrible comedy/horror movie: Autopsy of a Ghost (1968), in which he co-starred with Basil Rathbone. Both actors were aging, and no longer in demand in Hollywood — as old professionals, they'd consider any invitation to work rather than remain idle (and hungry). In fact, both men had also appeared in yet another dismal comedy/horror film, Hillbillys in a Haunted House, at around the same time. Hillbillys... was made either shortly before or directly after Autopsy of a Ghost — nobody seems to recollect for certain, but I think it was after, for two reasons: first, Carradine blamed the strain of working in Mexico City for Rathbone's death three months later; and second, after making Autopsy..., Carradine stayed in Mexico, voluntarily, to make several more dismal movies.
The state of Mexican cinema in the late 1960's was not particularly good. The death of the nation's cinema idol, Pedro Infante, in a plane crash in 1959 had symbolically announced the end of Mexican cinema's Golden Age; the growing influence of television and the increasing availability (not to say dominance) of American movies in Mexican cinemas also contributed to undermining the local industry. Autopsy of a Ghost came after the decay had truly set in, and comes as an embarrassment for practically everybody involved... not just Carradine and Rathbone, but also director Ismael Rodríguez, whose odd monster-Western Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956) is still fondly remembered by genre fans. Co-star Cameron Mitchell is partially exempted from the general shame — not only because he went on to make movies even John Carradine would have regretted, but mostly because he spoke Spanish well enough to be able to post-dub his own lines.
Yet as embarrassing as Autopsy of a Ghost is, it still carries some entertainment value... if you approach it in the right mood. Rathbone plays a 400-year-old ghost who is haunted by his own animated skeleton. The ghost is offered four chances at redemption by the Devil (played mostly in mime by Carradine): if he can convince a woman to fall in love with him, so much that she is willing to sacrifice her life for him, then ol' Mephistopheles will release him from his earthly prison. Just in time, mad scientist Cameron Mitchell moves into the haunted house with his lovely daughter, his housekeeper and his little grandson. In several painful sequences, Rathbone's ghost attempts to woo the daughter and the housekeeper, as well as a girl who comes looking for some stolen treasure (don't ask) — it's particularly agonizing to see Rathbone dressed up as a Beatles-type rock star, trying to make love to a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. Eventually Mitchell's prototype robot maid falls for the ghost, and sacrifices herself to save him from the Mad Scientists's techno-exorcism. The movie ends (appropriately enough) with Carradine's Auld Clootie thumbing his nose at a hostile theatre audience. It's broad, low-brow and unapologetically stupid... but everybody — even the obviously-ailing Rathbone, and especially Carradine — seems to be enjoying themselves.
For here's an interesting thing about Carradine: though he had a colossal ego even by actors' standards, it wasn't the kind of ego that arises as a defense against self-doubt. Carradine's ego was based on a supreme confidence in his own abilities. And because he was so firmly convinced of his own greatness, he was able to maintain a fine sense of humor about himself. This was the same attitude that allowed him to weather even the most blistering of John Ford's temper tantrums with a smile and a condescending pat on the back. This was the same inner certainty that allowed him to deliver page after page of utterly meaningless drivel for a Jerry Warren or a Ted Mikels without the slightest hint of self-consciousness or embarrassment. While Basil Rathbone looks more than a little stiff dressed up as (for example) a caricature of an amorous Frenchman, Carradine seems completely at home mugging as the Devil... stepping on his own tail so many times that he ends up retracting it by pressing his belly-button. When he tempts the Mad Scientist's little son to go jab the housekeeper in her ample posterior with one of his dad's hypodermics, he doesn't do it grudgingly, as though he were lowering himself with such silly tricks — he throws himself into it with maniacal glee.
Carradine had originally got into the Bad Movie business out of dire necessity. His appearances in potboilers like Return of the Ape Man and Voodoo Man in the 40's were made specifically to help finance his traveling Shakespeare company, after he'd sold practially everything he owned. The touring company went bust, leading to his appearance in still more down-market horror films... but Carradine confessed in later life that schlock movie roles gave him a chance to pull out all the stops and let loose, in a way that more conventional roles did not. Perhaps this was a defensive mechanism, to help him balance his need for film work — any film work — against the contempt he'd felt for even the best of his movies in his younger days. Or perhaps he was lying about this, as he lied so cheerfully and colorfully about so much of the rest of his private life. If it is true, it helps explain why Carradine eventually racked up a record of screen appearances that's one of the longest in history: he ended up appearing in dozens of movies even the most desperate of struggling Name Actors would have balked at; yet some of these stinkers ended up containing an unexpectedly enjoyable Carradine performance as their sole redeeming feature.
Which brings us to Las Vampiras (1969).
Las Vampiras is one of four films Carradine made for the producer Luis Enrique Vergara (who also produced Boris Karloff's final four films), after he finished making Autopsy of a Ghost. It's one of two in the bunch that pit Carradine against the masked wrestler Mil Mascaras, but it's the only one of the four in which Carradine does not play a Mad Scientist. Instead, he's cast as a vampire... which might seem like familiar territory for a man who played Dracula at least five times on screen and innumerable times on stage. But I can guarantee you've never seen John Carradine quite like this before.
The plot of Las Vampiras is nothing special. Journalist (and wrestling fan) Carlos Mayer is following up on the story of a Transylvania Airlines flight that crashed outside Mexico City. He suspects that the plane was carrying some very special passengers... and though nobody wants to believe him, he's right. Like the ship Demeter in Bram Stoker's novel, the plane was bringing a cargo of bloodsuckers from the Old Country to a rich new hunting ground. However, these vampires are all women: the male vampires have all been extirpated, forcing the Vampire Queen Aura to (ahem) pull up stakes and join Count Dracula's widow, Countess Véria, in Mexico.
A power struggle soon starts brewing between Aura and Véria for control over the few remaining Vampire Women. Naturally, this power struggle plays out as a series of dance numbers and choreographed cat-fights. In the meantime, the vampires start recruiting henchmen by putting the bite on Mexico's abundant supply of vigorous & virile Masked Wrestlers. The vampires abduct an African wrestler called (I am not making this up) "Black Man" just before a scheduled bout. This turns out to have been a bad move, since Black Man's intended opponent had been Mil Mascaras, the Wrestler of a Thousand Masks... and Mil Mascaras, like his predecessors El Santo and Blue Demon, fights for justice in his spare time. Teaming up with Carlos Mayer, the wrestler tracks the vampire women to their lair, just in time to step into the conflict between would-be vampire queens.
The plot of Las Vampiras is threadbare, to say the least. The script makes it even worse. The story is crammed with ridiculous gender stereotypes — did you know that female vampires make lousy drivers? The photography is uninteresting, and the movie seems to have been edited with blunt scissors and a jar of paste. As for the vampire women themselves — when they're not taking the form of laughable tar-paper bats, they're mute ciphers in tight leotards... they stand on the sidelines, flapping their arms like kindergartners doing "The Butterfly's Frolic" at the school talent show.
As for Mil Mascaras as the hero — I love Mexican wrestlers-vs.-monsters flicks, but let's face it: as actors, the Mexican luchadores enmascarados are pretty much animated sides of beef. The only way to tell them apart (unless you want to become a connoisseur of men's nipples) is by their masks. So when your main character keeps changing masks at every opportunity, you often have to stop and ask yourself: is this the same character, or is this yet another masked wrestler who's come to help out? Lucha films of the late 60's and beyond regularly featured multiple wrestlers, so the question's not so far-fetched.
The many faces of Mil Mascaras
In short, then, there's no reason even to watch Las Vampiras, let alone review it... except for the presence of John Carradine.
Carradine plays the last of the male vampires, Count Branos. Branos had once been the greatest of all vampires — Dracula was merely his protégé. But Branos's reign had come to an end when a would-be Van Helsing got his instructions wrong, and drove a wooden stake through Branos's head instead of his heart. This act robbed Branos of his youth and beauty (sorry, John!), and reduced him to a state of babbling idiocy. Now Countess Véria is forced to keep him in a cage, where he rages... and sobs... and giggles... and pines for his lost power and freedom.
Just let this setup sink in for a moment: John Carradine, one of the biggest and most flamboyant hams ever to grace stage and screen, gets to Play Mad.
And oh boy, does he ever. This is Carradine without the slightest restraint. Dressed in a dime-store Dracula costume, trapped behind the bars of what looks like a circus wagon, he doesn't need fangs to chew the scenery. Now defiant, now petulant, now bouncing up and down and clapping like a toddler, Carradine steals the show. After a while, you start to forget that that magnificent pipe-organ baritone voice of his has been dubbed, so arresting is his performance. He's shameless, totally unselfconscious — a living cartoon character without a shred of dignity.
But there's more: it turns out Branos is only faking. He is but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly, he knows a bat from a bandsaw. He knows he will be unable to wrest power from Aura in his decrepit state, so he pretends to be insane while plotting with Véria to reclaim the throne of the vampires. The plan works, and Véria sacrifices her own undead existence to bring Branos back to his full power. Thus, a mere seven minutes before the end of an otherwise tedious movie, we get a hint of what a John Carradine Dracula could have been, if he'd ever been allowed to go for the jugular.
It's over in seconds. But for that brief moment, gone is the tragic nobleman Carradine played for Erle C. Kenton in the House of... movies for Universal. Gone is the arthritic buffoon he played in "One-Shot" Beaudine's Billy the Kid Meets Dracula. There's no hint of the self-parodying version of the role he'd play a decade later in the disco comedy Nocturna ("If I'm alive, what am I doing here? On the other hand, if I'm dead... why do I have to wee-wee?"). What we're left with is a glimpse of John Carradine being absolutely terrifying...
This is Carradine at his freest, pushing the boundaries to see what he could get away with. When he appears as himself at the beginning of the film, introducing the story with a leather-bound book of what he claims are Poe stories, he discovers that he's opened his book upside-down. The audience can't see that, and Carradine — that master thespian, long-acquainted with stage business — knows we can't see it. But he pointedly flips the book anyway. I wouldn't be surprised to learn he'd done it intentionally, to see if it would end up in the finished film.
He obviously knew he was making a stinker. But instead of going through the motions and collecting a paycheck, Carradine turned in a performance that — just for a few moments — turns a dreary, useless movie into a funnier film than that intentional "comedy", Autopsy of a Ghost.
But is it right to get so much of a kick out of a great actor slumming under these circumstances? After all, the man who always wanted to travel the country presenting Shakespeare ended his life touring under quite different circumstances: bottom-billed to a performing chimp. Should we forget this aspect of Carradine's career, or — gods of the theatre forbid — should we pity him?
Well now... it's part of Bad Movie lore that it was Al Adamson's business partner, Sam Sherman, who convinced Adamson to hire Carradine for Blood of Dracula's Castle, and in doing so helped give a brief boost to the actor's failing career. And by "a brief boost", of course, we mean Horror of the Blood Monsters, The Astro-Zombies, and so forth. The truth is a little more nuanced. Not long before Adamson hired him, Carradine had appeared on Broadway in the original cast of Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; and in 1964 he'd worked again with John Ford in Cheyenne Autumn. These are not items on the résumé of a man who's hit bottom. It wasn't until the early 1970's, with the star's failing health, his third wife's accidental death, his fourth wife's catastrophic illness, and the vast changes that befell the movie industry that Carradine fell into real penury and neglect. When he made his classic 60's stinkburgers, he still had some control over his destiny... and he chose to make something memorable out of what would have been pure dross without him. All things considered, I think it's possible to savor Carradine's performances is movies of this era, like Las Vampiras, with a minimum of guilt.