The Cult of Director Christopher Coppola’s Dracula’s Widow (1988)

* contains spoilers

There may be a few vampire movies that may be worth a look as they appear to have been forgotten over the years. They are no masterpieces… but they are better after a single viewing, which is always a good sign.

Those movies are Dracula’s Widow (1988), Nightlife (tv movie 1989) and Revenant aka Modern Vampires (tv movie 1998). The last you can hardly confuse with the Leonardo di Caprio (1974-) film The Revenant (2015).

Director Christopher Coppola made his debut with Dracula’s Widow (1988)

Dracula’s Widow is the first film directed by Christopher Coppola (1962-), nephew of feted director Francis Ford Coppola (1939-) and middle brother of Marc Coppola (1958-) and Nicholas Cage (1964-).

It is interesting to note that Nicholas Cage made his cultish Vampire’s Kiss (1988) the same year, while Francis Ford Coppola made Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992.

Christopher Coppola’s brother Nicolas Cage’s Vampire’s Kiss (1988) trailer

Set, initially, in the fictional Hollywood House of Wax on Hollywood Boulevard, the film’s 1980s cast is headed by Dutch model Sylvia Kristel (1952-2012 lung cancer), who first came to note in the soft core Emmanuelle movies of the 1970s. Her greatest film hit apart from them was Private Lessons (1981), where she plays a housekeeper who initiates a teenager into the wonders of sex. She was also in a version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover made by Cannon Pictures in 1981. So you could tell her career trajectory by the time Dracula’s Widow came around.

Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel in one of the Emmanuelle movies

Kristel plays Vanessa who arrives via a chest to an unsuspecting wax museum owner played by Lenny Van Dohlen (1958-). Van Dohlen can be remembered as the nerd hero of Electric Dreams (1984), which wasn’t a great success despite being a cult film and he still acts.

Cannon Pictures’ Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1981) trailer

Kristel’s Vanessa bursts out of a shaking wooden crate with flashing red lights coming from within. She then goes around seducing men and sucking their blood as vampires do. Meanwhile actor Josef Sommer (1934-) is the Hollywood cop who “knows where the bodies are buried” and is looking into the murders.

He describes Van Dohlen as “spooky”. And why not?! As in the other crates are relics he treasures from Transylvania… he just didn’t realise who or what was in the extra crate.

Lenny Van Dohlen gets bitten by Dracula’s Widow

Kristel was a heavy smoker of non-filter cigarettes since a teenager and at about 37 in this film, her looks are starting to harden along with her arteries. She goes around in a black wig and not looking exactly svelte in garments which hide her figure.

Her first victim discovers she likes it on top as she takes him to a park, shows her suspenders and latches onto his throat.

Here is the whole movie of Nosferatu (1922) in the public domain

When thieves break into the wax museum to steal the relics, one has his face ripped off by a webbed hand with sharp fingernails… Meanwhile Van Dohlen is watching the original Nosferatu (1922) on his projector upstairs… when he gets a visit from the awfully pale Kristel who bites him on the neck.

Kristel in black wig as Dracula’s Widow

“I’m going to make you mine… so you’ll do anything I desire,” says Kristel and viewers who originally saw the film were perhaps hoping that would mean sexual encounters with Kristel stripping off. Nothing could be further from the truth in Dracula’s Widow! It’s a disappointment if that’s all you were looking for!!

With Sommer on the murder case, Van Dohlen can’t destroy the vampire in the crate the next morning because: “Yes, you are beautiful.”

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) trailer

There’s the odd moment of gore in this film but suspenders is all you get from Kristel. That said, any film which has a poster for Creature from the Black Lagoon on one of its walls can’t be all bad, as Van Dohlen’s girlfriend almost gets bitten by him.

“You looked so tasty there,” he says as they go for a quick bite to eat.

A second unit shot shows the Pantages Theatre with a couple of letters missing due to bad lights. There’s a good moment when a security guard is murdered but Kristel is a wooden actress at best.

Dracula’s Widow in her natural state

“My husband is not dead,” she tells Van Dohlen. Hubby is apparently still one of the undead to Kristel who is still unaware Van Helsing – not to be confused with Van Dohlen – did him in with a stake a century ago as Dracula lore tells. Dead or undead, don’t expect to see Dracula himself. However, there is the grandson of the vampire hunter Van Helsing played by Stefan Schnabel (1912-99 heart attack) in one of his last film roles. He was one of the original members of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre reparatory company and performed in the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938.

Stefan Schnabel worked with Orson Welles on the War of the Worlds broadcast

Gore-wise the best scene is the slaying of over a dozen devil worshippers at their very own red light district nightclub as Kristel’s face takes on demonic form.

Poor Van Dohlen is starting to grow grey after witnessing such things while Sommer, walking around in a trenchcoat and an old fashioned hat, looks a bit out of place… but picking up stray eyeballs from the nightclub floor makes up for it.

It’s a strange movie. It’s really not a comedy although there is something faintly amusing about some of the proceedings. It’s not a full throttle violent movie and it isn’t a sex movie… The version I saw may have been trimmed by the censors – it’s an old VHS tape – but Dracula’s Widow has something, it’s one of those odd films which mixes an innocent love story, the private eye genre – although he’s really a cop – with a little gore and vampire lore.

A great poster for Dracula’s Widow

Of some passing interest is the use of one of the magician and fake spiritualist Claude Alexander Conlin’s (1880-1954 after ulcer operation) rather large and beautiful advertisement posters. “Alexander The Man Who Knows,” reads the poster and the magician apparently spent a great deal of money creating these eye-catching chromolithograph posters.

Isabelle Adjani as victim in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Other actresses were reportedly considered for the role that went to Kristel, including Nastassja Kinski (1961-), Gloria Estefan (1957-) and Isabelle Adjani (1955-)… and all would have been better choices. Reported original choice Isabella Rossellini steered clear also. Perhaps it was the script and an inexperienced director at the helm that harmed the film’s chances in that respect along with its budgetary constraints. Coppola has done a good job otherwise and there have been worse first – and even last – films by a director. It would be a few years before he would direct again and the result Deadfall (1993) was panned and things got worse with what looks like over the top camp in Palmer’s Pickup (1999) although his film Sacred Blood (2015) got better reviews recently.

The Pantages Theatre with all of its lights on

The seedy Hollywood milieu of the 1980s isn’t quite convincing despite those missing lights on the Pantages sign, but it is a netherworld movie in a world of its own. The film just needed a fresher actress than Kristel. I have a fascination for this movie, even if it does show Francis Ford Coppola’s star on the Walk of Fame in some type of homage to nepotism. But nepotism is fine in this case as the results are not a total loss and Coppola walks a fine line between a straight horror movie while not quite straying into the horror of camp.

Dracula’s Widow (1988) trailer albiet from a Polish source

“Raymond, how could you?,” says Kristel after Von Dohlen stakes her out on a backstreet and she turns into slime. Is it funny or camp? Neither really.

Nightlife (1989) is a little known flick, made for tv, but released with the Universal Studios logo on the opening frames of a VHS tape.

The Duke Ellington (1899-1974 lung cancer) song Don’t Get Around Much Anymore opens the film which is set in Mexico. Actually, the film appears to be a Mexican production in English.

Former Bond girl Maryam d’Abo

We are shown some mummies at the beginning of the movie, one of which is stolen and then we are at the open grave of the beautiful British actress Maryam d’Abo (1960-) coming to life, fangs and all. d’Abo is a former Bond girl who played Kara Milovny in the Timothy Dalton (1946-) Bond The Living Daylights (1987). She made her debut in the low budget British horror Xtro (1982). She appeared in the September 1987 issue of Playboy although now she regrets the quality of the photos used.

Trailer for the British horror Extro (1982)

The opening sequences of Nightlife also features Glenn Shadix (1952-2010 blunt trauma from fall in his kitchen) who played the rotund and effeminate Otho in Tim Burton’s horror comedy Beetlejuice (1988). Shadix says when a policeman who opens the trunk containing the stolen mummy, which in turn murders the cop: “Definitely not a morning person.” This night dwelling mummy will change into actor Ben Cross (1947-) once he has enough sustenance. Meanwhile d’Abo goes to a blood bank to make a withdrawal… Yes, it’s tongue in cheek and its got built-in ad breaks – not to mention a total lack of gore because it is a 1980s made for cable movie.

Glenn Shadix was memorable as Otho in Beetlejuice (1988)

Vampire d’Abo befriends a doctor played by Keith Szarabajka (1952-) whose rasping voice reminds us of Harvey Fierstein (1954-). This doctor takes an interest in the strange composition of her blood as d’Abo moves into a large apartment with a maid played by actress Camille Saviola (1950-).

Saviola received a Cable-Ace award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the amusing and pushy Mexican servant.

“I need my own room and bath, with tub,” she demands and upon discovering d’Abo’s liquid diet of stored blood in the fridge… “No problem,” and shuts up. Later on, Saviola won’t let evil Cross in the apartment and instead continues to dance with a feather duster…

d’Abo was disappointed with the results of her Playboy shoot

“Let me in… I’ll rip out your throat and use your windpipe as a straw,” says a frustrated Cross, who is one of d’Abo’s lovers from the distant past. He just won’t let it go.

It’s a bit of a fish out of water story, with d’Abo suffering a blood disease around the time of the height of the AIDS epidemic.

“A virus is not a moral creature,” says Szarabajka, who says he’ll take d’Abo’s advice to “never bury yourself alive.” It seems it was the only way to get any peace from stalker vampire lover Cross.

Composer Dana Kaproff also did the score for The Amityville Murders (2018)

Filmed in the Distrito Federal in Mexico City, which I guess is one of the better parts of town, even though of the fifteen top Mexican murder cities in the world top fifty Mexico City is not one. In fact, I hear Mexico City’s got some great restaurants! I am also a fan of the synth score by Dana Kaproff (1954-), who worked recently on The Amityville Murders (2018) and goes back to doing music for Bert I. Gordon’s Empire of the Ants (1977) and horror When a Stranger Calls (1979).

Music-wise there is also the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1929-2000 during surgery for an aneurysm) version of I Put a Spell on You.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins performs I Put a Spell on You live

d’Abo wakes one evening to find her deranged and estranged flame Cross in her apartment. Cross is an actor who has been busy since he was one of the stars of the hit Chariots of Fire (1981) which was directed by d’Abo’s future husband Hugh Hudson (1936-). The couple met briefly in the mid-80s but didn’t marry until 2003.

“I dreamed of you every day and searched for you every night,” says Cross as he reminds her of the time she revelled in being a murderous monster.

But she says she’s changed but he obviously hasn’t, as he’s still a horrible killer who loves the terror he inspires when he kills. I guess it’s that old black magic. The story of vampires suffering from a virus is not new and you only have to go back to The Hunger (1983) for one of those storylines.

Actor Keith Szarabajka has a raspy voice

The acting in Nightlife is nothing very special apart from the colourful maid although Szarabajka is a talent and Cross is too. It’s like they kept it on the level of d’Abo’s acting so as to not show the seams in her performance.

“I believe there is a cult of people who believe they are vampires,” Szarabajka tries to explain away the mysticism of vampirism.

Ben Cross as he doesn’t appear in Nightlife but in 1991’s reboot of tv’s Dark Shadows

It has now become a love story between the doctor and d’Abo. When they go to sleep together, there is not talk of prophylactics to stop the virus, just: “You call this a bed?!” about the coffin in the bedroom.

Apart from the virus, the only protection from Cross is a gun as a crucifix and garlic don’t work, let alone sheltering in the local cathedral.

Ben Cross also appeared in The Unholy (1988) trailer

“To be diseased in this culture is to be a monster,” says Cross, who has a point about people with viruses such as AIDS back in 1989. Or even suffering the disease of mental illness can lead to misunderstood monsters in some cases. But in Cross’ case, he deliberately spreads his disease… Szarabajka is a modern man in Nightlife because he sees d’Abo beyond the disease and does not stigmatise her. It is these passing references to such illnesses which adds a bit of distinction to this comedy of sorts. The disease aspect of the movie isn’t treated too seriously with vials of blood exploding when someone opens the venetian blinds in the hospital laboratory… and a glass of blood with a straw as a tonic.

Some publicity for the cable produced vampire comedy horror Nightlife (1989)

Cross runs away with the acting honours in this one, as he’s not quite over the top as I mentioned earlier… we keep waiting for it to happen but he keeps it pretty deadpan.

“Angelique, you look wonderful,” says Cross to a cowering and hungry d’Abo as she’s captured and starved by Cross, so she will eventually feed on her doctor lover.

Nightlife (1989) trailer

Apart from one humorous exploding vampire under ultra violet light joke, there’s little special effects. However, Nightlife has its heart in the right place and the humour is there enough to keep it going on a better than average level. But is it one of the best vampire movies of all time? Don’t stake your life on it!

“We shall make the most glorious pair of monsters,” is the final line from the virus infected d’Abo and her also infected doctor, as they dance the night away.

Revenant aka Modern Vampires (1998) is another tv movie and another that’s not playing itself entirely straight. A bit of a satire, it’s also nice to see Natalie Wood’s (1938-81 drowned) daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner (1970-) have a good part for a change. Also starring is Casper Van Dien (1968-) from Starship Troopers (1997) and Kim Cattrall (1956-) on the cusp of her success in Sex in the City. Veteran actor Rod Steiger (1925-2002 pneumonia) was busy in this period before his death and he gives an amusing performance as Dr Frederick Van Helsing.

More Hollywood bloodsuckers in Revenant aka Modern Vampires (1999)

“They control the international press, they control international banking, they drink blood…,” says Steiger just before he gets kicked out of the Chateau Marmont.

It’s another Hollywood vampire movie and Natasha plays a rogue vampire in Hollywood who lives in a derelict fuel tanker at the local dump. She seems to be a liability to the vampire community as she may let the general public know of their existence, something which would lead to them being hunted down like rats.

Natalie Wood with a very young Natasha Gregson Wagner

Like in Dracula’s Widow, there’s a nightclub, this time it’s where the vampires gather to feed and dance to the latest club music. Clubbing there is another star Robert Pastorelli (1954-2004 morphine overdose) as The Count, who is apparently the leader of the vampires and is Dracula himself.

Robert Pastorelli died of a drug overdose

While Natasha throws up blood on an unsuspecting cab driver, Steiger recruits homies for $1000 a week “plus a thousand dollars for every drinker of blood we destroy.”

“I’m on probation man…” our homie hesitates before plunging a stake in his first victim’s chest. The vampire killed by the stake is played by actor Udo Kier (1944-) well-known for his performance as the lead in Andy Warhol’s Blood for Dracula (1974).

Andy Warhol’s Blood for Dracula (1974) starring Udo Kier trailer

Meanwhile Natasha is getting hungry and bites Casper who bites back… so begins their relationship.

It’s not surprising there’s an experienced director at the helm of Modern Vampires. Richard Elfman (1949-) directed the rather interesting cult items Forbidden Zone (1980) and Shrunken Heads (1994). I’m a fan of them both. Counting this movie, all three were also written by Matthew Bright (1952-), who grew up with Elfman and his decorated composer brother Danny Elfman (1953-) who has worked with Tim Burton among other major directors. Bright was also the writer/director of the memorable Freeway (1996).

Composer Danny Elfman in cult item Forbidden Zone (1980)

While Modern Vampires is not the instant classic of those other two movies, it’s a nice try as the foul language outdoes the gore – there’s a severed head at least – and Natasha briefly bares her breasts.

The actress undergoes a transformation halfway through the film from rat-haired street vampire to beautiful bisexual vamp after a make-over… she is a modern vampire after all!

Shrunken Heads is also a bit of a cult item (1994) trailer

Meanwhile Steiger’s ‘crip’, or member of a Los Angeles street gang, gets his “fellas” together to take on the bloodsuckers… it’s just they know more about partying than killing vampires. It’s probably not surprising that director Elfman was brought up in Crenshaw in Los Angeles, the neighbourhood of Boyz n the Hood (1991) fame.

Forbidden Zone was originally screened in black and white and was then colourized

Revenant aka Modern Vampires is on the cusp of when television movies actually started to be as good as cinema releases. The revolution with Netflix having now bought their own cinema to give their product a theatrical run for at least seven days to make it eligible for cinema awards such as the Oscars is apparently now complete.

Rod Steiger with his homies are out to destroy the Modern Vampires

Natasha, despite looking classy, still hangs out on the streets where she is accepted by her new paint sniffing girlfriend Natasha Lyonne (1979-) despite her vampire teeth…

The film climaxes with nearly all the stars of the film converging in one way or another in conflict with rape, rap, staking and bloodsucking… with a scene where Steiger spits blood in Pastorelli’s face apparently improvised.

Modern Vampires (1999) trailer

I saw the first two movies on videocassette back in the day and the last on DVD, so the tv origins of a couple of them were lost on me. I enjoyed them so and haven’t forgotten them over the years. There must be something of the undead about them as they forever live in my memory!

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