Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Deathmaster (1972)

Two studio logos always gave me a thrill in my younger days when they would appear on my television screen. The first is Toho's, because it was more often than not followed immediately by the strains of an Akira Ifukube score (or even more exciting, the first few bars of "Save The Earth," as sung by Adryan Russ). This, of course, would be the lead-in to a Godzilla movie, and my ass would be planted for the next two hours. The other was for American International Pictures (the Washington Capital building or the stylized yellow "a" and "i" in a circle, it didn't matter). While AIP were always a bit riskier (they didn't only make monster movies [neither did Toho, but you wouldn't know it from what was seen broadly in America at the time]), you were usually entertained for a couple hours, at least. Our offering this week comes from the latter.

A coffin washes up on a quiet California beach (how Biblical). A curious surfer investigates but is strangled by giant mute, Barbado (LaSesne Hilton), who then drags the coffin off down the beach as the credits roll. Hippies, Pico (Bill Ewing) and Rona (Brenda Dickson), are hanging out with local square, Pop (perpetual nebbish, John Fiedler), when biker, Monk (William Jordan), and his chick, Esslin (Betty Ann Rees), roll into town. When Monk bullies Pop, Pico steps in with some Billy-Jack-esque kung fu, but the youths bond when the fuzz show up, and Monk and Esslin are invited back to the local hippie commune. There, amid all the folk-song-playing, Khorda (Robert Quarry) appears and displays seemingly miraculous powers to the kids. The hippies immediately adopt Khorda as their mentor. Very quickly, however, Khorda's true nature is made clear, and it is left to Pico and Pop to stop the Deathmaster and save his girlfriend.

Even more than being a vampire movie, Ray Danton's Deathmaster deals with the idea of cults. In the early 1970s, Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders as well as Anton Lavey's controversial Church of Satan were prominent in the public consciousness, and the film picks up on this. Khorda is presented as a bearded, long-haired, charismatic guru. He pontificates about how "to know love, one must first be alive" and about the sanctity of the eternal and so on. It's all gobbledygook in order to inveigle young minds, but at the same time, Khorda seems to believe it (whether or not he actually does is an issue for debate, but either way, Quarry sells it). The hippies sit around prior to Khorda's coming and ponder the meaning of life and try to figure out where their place in the world is. They are, for all intents and purposes, innocents (perhaps incredulously so), but their naïveté helps sell the idea of how easy the seduction of their minds by evil is. 

The only person who doesn't trust Khorda is Monk, but he's also slightly older and portrayed as having been around. Seeing as the film came out after the Manson Family effectively murdered the "Summer of Love" and after the biker movie became passé, it can be viewed as a statement on the end of the hippie movement and the tamping down of outlaw bikers (though much less so this latter aspect). The film is nihilistic and violent and antithetical to the utopian idealism hippies ostensibly held dear. As a matter of fact, it can be argued that Pico's cynicism and distrust is his ultimate strength in the face of evil. Conversely, these same qualities which insure his survival will ultimately doom everything he loves. This theme is punctuated by a metatextual final shot that I suspect Lucio Fulci saw at some point.

That the villain of the piece is a vampire seems to me almost an arbitrary decision. Aside from talking about how long he's been alive, occasionally sprouting fangs, and sleeping in a coffin, Khorda doesn't do a hell of a lot of vampire-y things. The closest he (and the film) comes to being traditionally vampiric is when he seduces Esslin. He caresses her body while whispering of the gift he wants to bestow on her. He doesn't appear in her mirror. When he finally bares his fangs and attacks, Esslin succumbs in a manner moving from rape to ecstasy. When the other hippies are turned, it happens (inexplicably) within minutes. Further, after they're in Khorda's thrall, all they want to do is dance around half-naked, while Barbado slaps the bongos. Interestingly, vampirism in the film can be seen as both a drug and as a holy sacrament. Tragically, not much is done with this idea.

The film is not action-packed, and I'm not so sure it was meant to be. Like any piece dealing with mysticism and spiritual issues, the emphasis is not on the physical. Unfortunately, as a vampire movie, that's something of a mistake. If vampires don't attack humans and drink their blood, they're pretty crap vampires. This is the film's biggest misstep. Even when Pico and Pop make their final raid on the commune, none of the characters seems to want to lay hands on one another. The climax is built on a steady, quiet tension rather than on escalating action. Pico's martial arts skills are never brought into play after his brief scuffle with Monk. Khorda circles around Pico, laughing and taunting rather than attacking. It's almost as if any victory for good or evil should be decided spiritually rather than corporeally. Of course, this metaphysical conflict will have consequences in the physical world in ways that cannot be undone.

And yet, despite its lack of action, despite its tinkering with the accepted rules of vampirism (or arguably enhancing them), Deathmaster is overall an enjoyable movie and a small gem of the horror genre. My personal feeling is that this is due to the all-encompassing, nihilistic feel the film is steeped in. There is no escape from the darkness, and self-indulgent indecision and childlike trust will prove destructive to both body and soul. These facets, to me at least, are more intriguing and frightening than getting bitten by a monster or stabbed by a madman. Annihilation of the self is the truth of horror, I feel. The filmmakers here do a great job of making this point, even if the film itself doesn't hold together one hundred percent under the weight of its genre trappings. 

MVT: Robert Quarry does a marvelous turn as the mellifluous wolf-in-sheep's-clothing. You can tell he believes everything he says, and his performance sells the fact that the character has been around almost since time began. 

Make or Break: The "Make" is the opening on the beach. It's quiet, creepy, violent, and surreal, and it adroitly sets the tone for the film.

Score: 7.25/10


  1. Great review... I'm sold! That's a great poster too. Looks like something that would show up on an early 90's Metallica shirt.

  2. Thanks, Aaron. That poster is sick (and strangely actually relates to the film in a way). Hope you enjoy the flick. It's a bit oddball, but I like it.