Criterion Files #28: Sate Your Thirst with ‘Blood for Dracula’

Criterion FilesEditor’s note: This week, your tireless Criterion Warrior (oh, idea for a new column!) requested a week off to pursue something literary and intelligent and, well, big-wordy. With Mr. Palmer out, our own J.L. Sosa stepped up to the plate to file his very own Criterion, um, File. Be nice, bloodsuckers!

When I first saw Paul Morrissey‘s Blood for Dracula, I definitely felt like I was partaking of an illicit pleasure. A friend of mine with an encyclopedic knowledge (and equally impressive collection) of B-movies was moving to new digs and bequeathed to me, along with many other obscure relics, his VHS dub of the Criterion Collection’s unedited laserdisc edition of the film (LD spine #287, for the digit-obsessed). Based on the rumors I’d long heard, I was expecting copious over-the-top gore. The film delivered on that promise, but also unexpectedly unfolded with the langorous pace of a high-falutin’ costume drama. You know, just like Sense and Sensibility, except with more extended scenes of softcore grinding and vomiting of blood.

I later caught a midnight showing of the film at the beloved St. Anthony Main theater, just across the Mississippi from downtown Minneapolis. This time, the salacious tale of Count Dracula (Udo Kier) and his quest for the blood of a “wirgin” was screened from an authentically scratchy print, and curiously retitled Young Dracula. Although the R-rated Young Dracula had most of its eroticism trimmed, there was still enough suggestive content and bloodletting to draw whoops of approval (and sometimes loving derision) from the audience. There was no doubting the film’s ability to please fans of exploitative sleaze.

And that’s what makes the film’s appearance (along with that of its fraternal twin, Flesh for Frankenstein) in the Criterion Collection back catalog something of a puzzler. Why would the devoted archivists, who’ve so lovingly preserved the works of Resnais, Bergman and Kurosawa, deign to champion a flick in which our protagonist greedily laps away at a puddle of blood (said puddle being the sanguinous aftermath of a busted hymen)?

The glib answer is, at one point Warhol gave this thing the Factory seal of approval (yup, another of this film’s alternate titles is Andy Warhol’s Dracula). And if Warhol says it’s art, then it’s art, right? I’m totally willing to buy that answer, although doing so does something of a discredit to Morrissey’s achievement. That achievement was basically to craft a film that delivered the goods as well as or better than many of the B-horror movies which preceded it, while indicting those who mindlessly lust for the flesh and gore.

Most of the characters in Blood for Dracula might well be analogues for the audience’s baser appetites. The randy servant Mario (Joe Dallesandro) and his incestuous bedmates, Rubinia and Saphira (Stefania Casini and Dominique Darel), are constantly giving in to lust. It seems that most of the time, they’re either about to shag, are in mid-shag, or have just finished shagging.

The viewers’ bloodlust is personified by (you guessed it) the titular count. Dracula’s hunger for virgins’ blood seems less like a natural need for wholesome sustenance and more like a junkie’s craving for smack. He’s racked with paroxysms of withdrawal when he can’t have it. When he does get it, his relief is intense and short-lived. And when the stuff ain’t pure enough, he vomits violently and quite memorably declares, “The blood of these whores is killing me!”

Of all the characters, the most obvious surrogate for the audience might be Dracula’s butler, Anton (Arno Juerging). He eyes all the proceedings with lascivious glee. And a filmmaker (Roman Polanski in an inspired cameo), makes him the butt of a clever joke.

So, is Morrisey just dripping with contempt for his audience? Maybe, but I doubt it. If he were truly disgusted with those of us of who enjoy a good wallow in the mire, I think he wouldn’t bother to pander to our tastes in this and his even sleazier Flesh for Frankenstein.

I like to think that, even if he’s smugly looking down his nose at us, he regards us with the same grudging affection that he has for his characters. For as Morrissey once told the New York Times, “The characters may be losers, but they’re all kind of likable.”

Sink your teeth into more Criterion Files.

J.L. Sosa is a freelance writer, photographer and horror filmmaker. He's burdened with an irrational fear of spiders and clowns. He loves (in descending order of magnitude) his girlfriend, his pets and spinach.

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