It Takes Two to TERRORIZE

Sometimes less really is better. It’s  especially true in genre films like horror and science fiction, in which padding (needless subplots, unnecessary characters, special effects) is used to hide a lack of content.

A couple of oldies but goodies from both genres just came out on Blu-ray, demonstrating the virtues of economy in terms of storytelling and running time. The Return of Dracula (1958) clocks in at one hour, 17 minutes; The Earth Dies Screaming at a minimalist one hour, 2 minutes.

Neither is a certifiable classic (whatever that dubious term might mean), but each still demonstrates how imagination and entertainment don’t necessarily require bloated budgets and yawning lengths. For older fans of horror and sci-fi, the two movies are a nostalgic look back.

The late 1950s saw the birth of the blood-and-bosom approach to horror in England, best typified by Hammer Films’ rebirth of the classic monsters in films like The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Mummy, all of which (and many more) starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. In America, a similar resurgence was underway, mostly with even smaller budgets and more limitations and restrictions (black-and-white instead of color, minimal blood and gore, and more chastely attired females — bloodsuckers or not).

Some of the more memorable entries were I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, I Was a Teenage Werewolf (with a young Michael Landon), Blood of Dracula (vampire in a girls’ boarding school) and Curse of the Undead (cowboy vampire in the Old West). One of the very best of the group was also one of the most traditional plot-wise: The Return of Dracula.

Pursued from his native Transylvania by a group of fervent vampire hunters, Dracula (Frances Lederer, suitably sinister and European) ends up in California under the alias of Bellac Gordal, an artist whose blood and identity he appropriates for himself. As Bellac, he takes up residence at the home of his American cousins, where he charms everyone, particularly pretty niece Rachel (Norma Eberhardt). Needless to say, his intentions are anything but honorable.

Dracula sports no fangs here, though one scene has his female consort become a white wolf, a rarity in earlier films about the Fanged One, not duplicated (at least to my knowledge) until the Frank Langella version in 1979. One gimmick (effective at the time) features a quick shift to color as the vampire hunters stake the luckless “bride,” a trick William Castle utilized to even better effect two years later in The Tingler.

It’s easy to believe screenwriter Pat Fiedler, a UCLA Theater Arts grad, consciously used Hitchcock’s 1943 masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt as a template. In both films, a murderous relative from the East pervades the innocence of a small California town with his evil, the ultimate target being the sweet young girl whom he’s temporarily deceived. Frances Lederer’s Bellac Gordal aka Dracula bears more than a passing resemblance to Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie in the Hitchcock film.

Though director Terence Fisher put Hammer Films on the map with the three films mentioned above (and several others), creative differences led to a brief break with the studio, during which Fisher helmed The Earth Dies Screaming for the lesser-known Lippert Films. Despite its outrageously bombastic title, the movie is actually a kind of sci-fi chamber piece, the first eight minutes running without a single word of dialogue.

The opening sequence recalls The Village of the Damned, made four years earlier. Planes crash, trains wreck and autos collide as people everywhere suddenly and unaccountably fall over and die. Into a small English village comes the first survivor, Jeff, an American test pilot (Willard Parker), who soon meets a half-dozen more folks; they try to make sense of what’s going on.

The small cast features the usual suspects: the drunk, the grousing girl, the good girl, the bad girl, and the young couple. Naturally the wife is about to give birth. Meanwhile, the survivors are stalked by robots whose alien masters are able to turn dead corpses into walking eyeless zombies (Many historians of genre films claim The Earth Dies Screaming is a clear source of inspiration for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.)

Whether that’s true or not, Fisher’s modest sci-fi thriller is still fun to watch like The Return of Dracula, it’s a reminder of simpler cinematic joys that are none the worse for age and time.