Monday, June 14, 2010


No,"Square Dance Jubilee" director Paul Landres' "The Return of Dracula" (*** out ****) has nothing to do with either the Universal Pictures franchise or the Hammer Film series. Instead, United Artists distributed this Gramercy Pictures theatrical release, and "The Return of Dracula" qualifies as an imaginative but minor chiller on a low budget. Landres and scenarist Pat Fielder, who collaborated earlier on the lackluster movie "The Vampire," have taken liberties with the formulaic Bram Stoker story while channeling the Alfred Hitchcock serial killer thriller "Shadow of a Doubt" as an American family opens their doors to the infamous Count who is masquerading as their immigrant cousin. Surprisingly, the filmmakers do not acknowledge Stoker during the opening credits, though the name of Stoker’s memorable vampire is mentioned three times. Dracula rides in a contemporary train at one point and later crosses the Atlantic Ocean on a luxury liner. This is the kind of vampire movie where the undead one can freely enter any rooms without an invitation. Some vampire lore dictates that the vampire cannot enter a room without the permission of its host. One of the neatest things about this micro-budget effort is the use of dry ice inside the coffins when we gaze upon the vampires.

“The Return of Dracula” opens with the following narration as two cars cruise through the countryside in route to a cemetery: “It is a known fact that there existed in Central Europe a Count Dracula. Though human in appearance and cultured in manner, he was, in truth, a thing undead, a force of evil, a vampire feeding on the blood of innocent people, he turned them into his own kind, thus spreading his evil domination even wider. The attempts to find and destroy this evil were never proven completely successful. And so the search continues to this very day.” Like Bram Stoker’s novel, “The Return of Dracula” finds our undead protagonist looking for somewhere different to stalk his prey. Several men led by John Merriman (John Wengraf of “The Pride and the Passion”) climb out of the two cars, drape pedants with crosses at their throats, and enter Dracula’s tomb to kill him. Imagine their surprise when they find an empty coffin! The action shifts to a railway station as Bellac Gordal (Norbert Schiller of “Sign of the Pagan”) explains that living in the Balkans stifles his artistic freedom, so he bids his immediate family farewell to board a train to America. Bellac plans to stay with his cousin, Cora Mayberry (Greta Granstedt of “Nocturne”), and her family in Carleton, California. Fortunately for Dracula, Cora hasn’t laid eyes on her Bellac since he was a little boy. When Bellac enters his coach, the artist meets a mysterious gentleman perusing a Berlin newspaper. Not long after he puts his luggage in an upper berth, Bellac turns to the other passenger. A look of horror suffuses Bellac’s face the man assaults him. Director Paul Landres edits Bellac’s death scene so when Bellac screams, the action cuts to an exterior shot of the locomotive as its eldritch whistle pierces the night with a hair-raising shriek, the perfect visual and aural metaphor for Bellac’s terror. What makes this set-up so interesting is that Dracula later confides to Cora’s daughter Rachel (Norma Eberhardt of “Live Fast, Die Young”) that he left Central Europe because he felt that “My life has been confined. That’s why I came here . . . for freedom. I must have it.” These lines of dialogue make “The Return of Dracula” a Cold War era vampire chiller. Unmistakably, the Count is bailing out of the Balkans because of Communism.

Of course, the Mayberry family is anxious to welcome cousin Bellac and make him as comfortable as possible. Nobody is more excited to see her cousin than Rachel. Rachel wants to be an artist like Bellac, but she fears that she will end up working as a nurse. She spends time already in a nearby religious facility that takes care of sick people. She tends a blind girl, Jennie Blake (Virginia Vincent of “Tony Rome”), at the parish house and reads to her. Initially, the Mayberry’s aren’t sure how to treat their cousin. He rarely comes out of his room during the day and he detests mirrors. Dracula goes after Jennie and makes her his bride. Before she goes to school the next day, Rachel is summoned to parish house and watches in horror as Jennie dies. Jennie slips her the crucifix before she dies. A U.S. Department of Immigration official, Mack Bryant (Charles Tannen of “The Rack”), shows up at the Mayberry house and makes inquiries about Bellac. He explains that a man was thrown from a train in Europe when a group of immigrants were making their way to America. Dracula appears to answer Bryant’s questions. Bryant wields a cleverly concealed camera in a flip-top cigarette lighter. He ignites his cigarette as he snaps a photo.

Bryant is cooperating with Merriman, and Dracula suspects as much so he kills Bryant after Jennie Blake lures the poor fellow into the woods. The cool thing about this Dracula movie is that nobody actually kills the evil Count. Dracula lures Rachel to the secluded cave where he has concealed his coffin. This is the same cave that Rachel’s little brother Tim followed his cat Nugget. Eventually, the cat died in the cave. Meanwhile Merriman has mobilized the town authorities to kill Jennie. Everybody is flabbergasted when they see Jennie sneak back into her crypt at sunrise. Merriman and company open the coffin and drive the stake into her. The close-up of the stake going into Jennie’s body was photographed in color. No sooner has the stake penetrated her evil heart and killed her than Dracula feels the impact of the stake itself and staggers against his own coffin. Rachel makes a break for it and encounters her boyfriend Tim (Ray Stricklyn of “The Last Wagon”) who takes her crucifix and holds it up at Dracula. He forces the Count to back away from Rachel. Dracula concentrates so much on Tim and the crucifix that he forgets about a pit behind and falls into it, and skewers himself on a stake. He turns into a skeleton and perishes.

Francis Lederer makes an effectively villainous Dracula with a conspicuous foreign accent, but he cannot bare his fangs any more than his predecessors could. Indeed, nobody ever addresses him as Dracula to his face, and he has no crazy mad assistant. He hails from the Balkans area of eastern Europe. He doesn't dress as fashionably as either Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, but he is not a derelict. He likes to materialize out of a cloud of mist and the same is true of the poor girl that he transforms into his vampire bride. This Dracula is also shape-shifter, and he appears as a white wolf but there is no transformation scene. Although “Isle of the Dead” lenser Jack Mackenzie photographed the film predominantly in black and white, Landres inserts an interesting shot that is in color when our heroes stake a vampire. The last-minute ending is quite ironic, too! Not long after the May 1958 release of "The Return of Dracula," Hammer Film Studios released their "Horror of Dracula" the following May that took the infamous vampire to a new level of excitement. Christopher Lee was allowed to bare his fangs!


Anybody who enjoyed the landmark NBC-TV action series “The A-Team” will probably want to see new big-screen adaptation. “Smokin’ Aces” director Joe Carnahan and scenarists Skip Woods and Brian Bloom have adhered to both the spirit and formula of the George Peppard classic. Our original heroes were elusive, but wrongly-convicted government fugitives on the lam, one jump ahead of military authorities, and the film “The A-Team” sticks to that premise like glue. Although the series that co-starred Mr. T was set against Vietnam, Carnahan and his scribes have updated the storyline so the action occurs in Iraq. Since more than twenty years has elapsed since the series left the air, Twentieth Century Fox must have decided that the movie do double-duty as an origins outing rather than a sequel. After all, contemporary audiences probably weren’t watching television when the original series aired from 1983 to 1987. Liam Neeson of “Taken” quite capably takes over the role that George Peppard originated. Bradley Cooper of “The Hangover” steps easily into Dirk Benedict’s shoes as ‘Faceman.’ Newbie Sharlto Copley of “District 9” is every bit as loony tunes as Dwight Schultz was as the harebrained Murdock. Finally, Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson plays ghetto-tough B.A. Baracus, the role that made Laurence Tureaud into an overnight sensation as Mr. T. Essentially, “The A-Team” (**** out of ****) qualifies as a prequel to the television series. The filmmakers show how the eponymous foursome met and wound up in the dire predicament that led to their weekly exploits.

“The A-Team” concerns honor, deception, betrayal, lies, and revenge. Colonel Hannibal Smith, a U.S. Army Ranger, is getting the pulp smashed out of him as the action unfolds in gritty Mexico. A corrupt Mexican policeman laughs at Hannibal because our hero handed over a bundle of greenbacks to a dirty cop. They cannot get Hannibal to cough up anything but blood, so they decide to ice him. They try to kill him with his own pistol, but Hannibal has removed the firing pin, and the corrupt cop doesn’t want his henchman to shoot him with his own gun because he fears that U.S. authorities will trace the killing back to them. They leave Hannibal with his impaired firearm and turn two vicious dogs loose on him. Before the dogs can reach him, Hannibal reassembles his weapon and his waiting for the mutts. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Templeton ‘Faceman’ Peck is tied up and stuck in the middle of several tires while a higher corrupt cop, General Javier Tuco (Yul Vazquez of "American Gangster") wants to know who the pretty boy is working for. They plan to strung Peck up, and General Tuco is furious because Faceman had sex with his wife. B.A. Baracus is cruising through the countryside in his signature black mini-van when he happens upon an escaped Hannibal. They share U.S. Ranger tattoos and bond, after Hannibal pumps a slug into him. Just as the villains are about to hang Peck, Hannibal and B.A. arrive like the cavalry in the nick of time. Afterward, our heroes grip each other’s hands and set off to a hospital to pick up Murdock. The angry Tuco masses his forces and retaliates with greater firepower. Our protagonists spring Murdock from the hospital, and he flies them out in a Red Cross helicopter, only to discover that another chopper armed with missiles is pursuing them. Murdock performs some aerodynamically impossible stunts to elude the missiles. This entire, prolonged, bullet-riddled, action-packed sequence with the main credit titles popping up occasionally against the scenery and the gunfire resembles the pre-credit sequence from a James Bond escapade. Carnahan never lets the action stall for a moment and he adopts a storytelling strategy that keeps audiences up to snuff with the “A-Team’s” shenanigans. Basically, Carnahan lets the characters explain what they plan to do and shows them carrying out the plan as they explain it. The recent "Sherlock Holmes" movie did the same thing.

The story lunges ahead eight years into the future after our heroes have completed 80 missions. The setting is Iraq after the war has concluded. Hannibal and his men are considered the best special operations unit in the U.S. military. Hannibal has caught wind of a hush-hush, top-secret operation that he feels only his elite quartet can handle. It seems that terrorists in Baghdad have obtained stolen U.S. Mint printing plates and have run off over $1 billion worth of $100 bills. The bigger diplomatic picture prohibits Hannibal’s oldest friend, General Morrison (Gerald McRaney of CBS-TV’s “Simon & Simon”), from issuing Hannibal official orders to recover both the plates and the money. Instead, Morrison appears to have struck a deal with a ruthless band of mercenaries called Black Forest, led by Pike (Brian Bloom of “Terminal”), who have no qualms about murder as long as they are paid in full. Meantime, our heroes go in, snatch the plates and a trailer-load of counterfeit currency. All too suddenly, everything goes south for Hannibal and his team. An explosion obliterates the trailer, and Morrison dies in another explosion himself. Our heroes are arrested for disobeying orders. Everybody, including one of Peck’s ex-girlfriends, Captain Charisa Sosa (sexy Jessica Biel of “Stealth”), believes that Hannibal’s team and Pike’s gunmen collaborated on the mission. The Army court-martials the quartet and sends them off to serve stretches in different prisons. Hannibal refuses to accept this miscarriage of justice and finds himself an ally in Lynch (Patrick Wilson of "Watchmen") a mysterious C.I.A. agent. Although he is incarcerated in a top military lock-up, Hannibal has been cooking up a plan when he meets with Lynch. In no time at all, our heroes escape from prison and go after Pike.

Hollywood has struggled without success to resurrect other televisions series, but they have failed more often than not and failed miserably. “Starsky and Hutch,” “Wild Wild West,” “I Spy,” “The Avengers,” and “The Mod Squad” were catastrophes. Happily, “The A-Team” is a straightforward, larger-than-life, high-octane, action movie that never wears out its welcome. Moreover, “The A-Team” is better than its predecessor. Predictable for the most part, it is nevertheless an amusing as well as absorbing, with terrific performances, snappy dialogue, and a sense of audacity. The biggest differences between the PG-13 rated “A-Team” and the original series is that people die, and the big-screen adaptation adopts a grittier approach. Of course, “The A-Team” is just another big, noisy, slam-bang actioneers, but these Carnahan and company know how to slam and bang! They haven’t overlooked anything in terms of hardware so “The A-Team” looks as slick and sophisticated as a James Bond extravaganza. They have also jammed in enough intrigue for a Jason Bourne thriller. This explosive adventure opus has crowd pleaser branded on it with its international locations, high voltage action sequences, and murderous villains.