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Communists & Lesbians, but no Count Dracula: BLOOD OF DRACULA (1957)

That neglected low-budget 1950s horror movie BLOOD OF DRACULA has been rearing its head periodically on late-nite cable.

It’s a primo example of an early Herman Cohen production.  And a fascinating look at how screenwriter Aben Kandel loads a film with the fears of the Zeitgeist.  Many screenwriters have succeeded at crystalizing the fears of a culture, but Kandel did so on a totally unconscious level.  His scripts are sterling examples of a writer going inwards to create, and bringing forth results that are characters and situations embodying the concerns subliminally perceived in society.

The credits of Aben Kandel (who also penned under the names Kenneth Langtry and Ralph Thornton) read like the usual ride through the B-Picture side of the Industry:  some scripts produced here and there, some additional dialog gigs now and then, films such as WHAT’S BUZZIN’, COUSIN? and SHE GETS HER MAN.  Right before WW2 he got his name on a couple of A-List movies:  the feature that got Lana Turner discovered, THEY WON’T FORGET, and the classic Irene Dunne / Charles Boyer weepie WHEN TOMORROW COMES in which he shared writing credits with The Postman Always Rings Twice novelist James M. Cain and future Number One Hollywood Blacklistee and SALT OF THE EARTH auteur, Herb Biberman.

But most of Kandel’s scripts were (to quote Story Department employee Nancy Olson in SUNSET BOULEVARD) “from hunger.”  Among his final produced works (again for Herman Cohen) were Joan Crawford’s last two cinema train wrecks:  BERSERK! and TROG.

Bullet Bras are no defense against the Blood of Dracula!!

A Bullet Bra is no defense
against the Blood of Dracula!!

Cohen, like Roger Corman, quickly realized in the mid-1950s that adults were watching TV at home while teenagers were going to the movies.  As with the two previous Cohen / Kandel collaborations, I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF and I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, this film is set up with a sympathetic teenager as the protagonist, surrounded by uncaring or exploitative adults.

BLOOD OF DRACULA opens with teenager Nancy Perkins being unceremoniously dumped by her father on the doorstep of a boarding school for girls, only a couple of weeks after her mother had died.  On the heels of Mom’s passing, Dad remarried, and Nancy’s father and new mother-in-law (a bottle-blonde with a balcony you could do Shakespeare from) feel she’s getting in the way of Daddy and Mommy’s connubial bliss.

First night in the dorm, Nancy establishes herself as an Alpha female who’s mad as Hell:  the perfect specimen for behavioral experiments by Miss Branding, the school’s science teacher.

The character Miss Branding is the receptacle for all the grey and paranoid fears of mid-century America.  First, she’s a science teacher, a subject approached with much suspicion by Americans in the 1950s.  Russian scholastics were known to be science-heavy while a U.S. education was not.  [It was the year of this film, 1957, that the first satellite was launched into orbit:  USSR’s Sputnik.  The fear of the Soviets being so far ahead of the U.S. in the hard sciences caused a major overhaul of K-12 teachings in America.]  But secondly and more importantly she is eying the girl students as possible recruits for a secret agenda.  This underlying menace (Communism? Homosexuality?) is what gives the movie its psycho-tension.

Recruiting for Lenin or Recruiting for Lesbos?  Louise Lewis (right) as Miss Branding, science teacher for girls.

Recruiting for Lenin or Recruiting for Lesbos?
Louise Lewis (right) as Miss Branding, science teacher for girls.

The middle-aged, unmarried and smart Miss Branding is costumed in no-frills attire (School marm garb?  Or is it perhaps Soviet-bloc couture or no-nonsense Lesbian drag?).  Louise Lewis, the actress who plays Branding, has that Central Casting “foreign” look (i.e.: Eastern European), which would have raised audience suspicions back in the day.  But the power Branding brandishes is not within herself; she communes clandestinely with an invisible and unknowable force.  She is in servitude and looks to create servitude in the youth of her school.  While the story has been crafted as a monster flick, these added layers that develop the paranoia of subversion are unconscious:  by fashioning a horror movie, the authors subliminally brought to the surface those things that induced unease and suspicion within themselves.

Remember, this was years before the Powell Memorandum, the blueprint for our divisive contemporary landscape of Culture Wars where educators, creatives, the poor (basically everyone who didn’t work within corporate America) were demonized, resulting in a country where its citizens point fingers, shout and blame each other in a war of rhetoric.  BLOOD OF DRACULA is a product of a fascinating time when fears were covert, and hate was focused on a select list of causes and persons seen as common public enemies.

The title of the movie is a shill:  there is no “Dracula” in this film.  But there’s plenty of content to digest.

You can see the trailer for BLOOD OF DRACULA at a Herman Cohen tribute site by clicking here.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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2 Comments to “Communists & Lesbians, but no Count Dracula: BLOOD OF DRACULA (1957)”

  1. Andy Grovo says:

    Let’s not get too excited here. This is just a harmless piece of 1950s teen trivia made to the tastes of 1950’s teens.

    The idea was to have a little fun mixed with excitement of the legendary Dracula scare. Some of the girls were quite sexy, especially Heather Ames in a supporting role. Teens loved the movie but none of them took it seriously. I know, I was one of them.

    • Doug says:

      I understand your point of view, and it is a great piece of teen drive-in fodder, yet I remember the ‘fifties and it was a time of us-vs.-them, with the two main threats being Communism and “deviates.” Unconsciously, I think the creative team dressed up the boogey-woman in this film to represent a mishmash of those fears.

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