Dracula’s Widow (1988) Retrospective

SUMMARY

The film, situated in Hollywood, or Tinsel Town as the narrator (Lt. Lannon/Josef Sommer) calls it, opens with Hollywood House of Wax owner Raymond Everett (Lenny von Dohlen) receiving a delivery of some valuable antiques from Poenari, Romania. He anxiously takes delivery of a sixth crate even though he was only expecting five. Later that evening at a Jazz bar called The Blue Angel, a sleazy but lonely patron hits on a mysterious dark-haired woman (Sylvia Kristel) who wonders in. Soon after, they leave together and travel to a secluded park where this peculiar woman kills the man. More shenanigans ensue that night when over at the wax museum, two thieves break in while Raymond is upstairs watching Nosferatu. During the robbery, a creature with webbed hands and dagger-like nails attacks one of the thieves. The thief’s throat is ripped open and his blood drained by a long tentacle emitted from the creature’s mouth. The other man escapes. Following this attack, the mysterious brunette from earlier enters the room where Raymond sits unsuspecting. After a very short battle of wills, Raymond is taken possession of (with a bite) and forced to renounce his girlfriend Jenny Harker (Rachel Jones).

Sylvia-Kristel

The next day, Lt. Lannon and his partner Citrano (Traber Burns) are called to the crime scene at the park. A clue left in the grass leads them to The Blue Angel, in which witnesses are unable to contribute much. Meanwhile, Raymond tries to free himself from the Vampire’s hold but fails; instead, he cleans up her mess before Jenny arrives. Raymond’s girlfriend, who also works at the museum, observes his distress. She tries to comfort him but instead Raymond tries to bite her, unsuccessfully. As night falls, the creature attacks again. This time it is a night watchman who is ironically watching a news report about the park murder at the onset of his death. Summoned by the vampire, Raymond picks her up in his car.

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She tells him that he must return her to Romania to her husband Count Dracula. However, Raymond informs her of Count Dracula’s death and that van Helsing is responsible. At this moment, Raymond’s girlfriend, Jenny, glimpses him in the car with the other woman. The police receive a valuable part of the puzzle from the frazzled burglar who witnessed his accomplice’s death at the wax museum the previous night. Later, through van Helsing’s aged grandson (Stefan Schnabel), we learn that all vampires were destroyed with the exception of Vanessa, who is the true wife of Dracula. She is described as both beauty and beast. In a sleazier part of town, Vanessa and Raymond encounter a group of hardcore occultists who seem to sense Vanessa’s evilness and welcome her. She surprises them though when she transforms into the beast and slaughters all save Raymond.

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The next morning, Jenny angrily confronts Raymond over the phone and then abruptly hangs up. Distressed, Raymond writes a letter confessing his predicament hoping she will forgive him. Back at the wax museum, Raymond is met by Lt. Lannon who casually searches the premises. The lieutenant confronts Raymond with the burglar’s admission, which he denies. However, their meeting is cut short when Lannon is called to another of Vanessa’s massacres. There, Lannon meets van Helsing’s elderly grandson who tells him that vampires not devil worshippers are to blame. To establish his theory, they journey to the morgue where Vanessa’s first victim is located. With a wooden stake and mallet, Helsing makes Lannon a believer as the victim is briefly reanimated at the moment of his true death. Later, Lannon visits Jenny hoping to discover more information about Raymond and gain her trust. Jenny afterwards meets up with Raymond and he gives her a cross to protect her. Night arrives and more murders follow as Vanessa slays Citrano and Helsing. Consequentially, Raymond is arrested and his wax museum searched for evidence, which police discover.

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While in custody, officers try to elicit a confession from Raymond that does not involve a beautiful vampire-monster. However, the only cop who believes him is Lt. Lannon. He and Jenny eventually collaborate to locate Vanessa and exonerate Raymond. As night approaches, Raymond is taken to a vacant warehouse by a few officers for a bit of police brutality, but Vanessa intervenes hoping to eliminate Raymond herself. Jenny, via supernatural intervention, discovers the warehouse. Both, she and Lannon are able to distract Vanessa, while Raymond takes the opportunity to kill her thus regaining his humanity.

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BEHIND THE SCENES

Starring Sylvia Kristel as the title character, this Tom Bloomquist screenplay is of cookie-cutter variety. The widow of you-know-who is shipped to a Hollywood wax museum from Castle Bran in Romania. Lenny Von Dohlen portrays Raymond, the hapless pawn of Kristel. Determined to return to Romania and find her husband, the widow continues her rampage for fresh blood until Dr. Van Helsing’s grandson (Stefan Schnabel) turns up with all the answers to this rash of brutal murders. It’s the ol’ get me to the church on time” routine to save Raymond’s life at the hands of the widow.

Arriving on the location after nightfall, we discover that a section of a Wilmington street has been redressed to resemble a Hollywood thoroughfare. Anyone who’s spent time in Tinseltown will immediately see through this flimsy recreation, but so what? Atop a crane stands debut director Christopher Coppola. From just about any angle you view him, he looks like his infamous uncle Francis. Replete with beard and white fedora, the youthful fellow points and ponders like a true professional, as his crew prepares to shoot a scene where the Hollywood police descend upon the museum. A huge army of cars and cycles awaits its cue, positioning themselves far up the road. Seems like a good time to drop in on the special makeup FX men.

Dean Gates and Todd Masters dwell in the unassuming building that houses the makeup FX goodies, once dressed as the interior of the wax museum and since struck after those scenes were completed. The duo are a refreshingly stable crew whose mission here is total professionalism. Scattered about the work area are intriguing props and entrails, as well as wax replicas of famous dead people.  Tonight,” announces Masters, “we are tweaking. This cable operated bat is a final transformation stage of Vanessa, the character played by Sylvia Kristel. The jaw and head moves. It just came in from Glendale, California. It has gone through a little hell. Steve Neill built the puppets in the film; he and his crew spent about two months on them.”

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Gates stands by attentively as Masters describes some oozy FX. “One thing we’ve been doing a lot of is the Berni Wrightson-styled ‘spit look.’ We have mixed up a variety of thicknesses and batches of a material called methocyl. It’s a stock slime for this type of effect. Add water to it and it thickens. It’s used in K-Y jelly. so imagine that stuff real thick.”

Gates, who came to DEG two years ago, reveals how the catering truck menu came in handy for certain gore FX. The Italian food fare was especially suited for the needed textures. “The eggplant parmigiana was the best,” says Gates with a childish grin. We took a bit of that, threw it in a bucket with some blood, and people went nuts. They’d ask what it was. When I’d tell them it was the eggplant we had for lunch, they would back away. denying it. They really thought we had gone down to a slaughterhouse and got some guts that happened to smell like mozzarella cheese.”

“Oh no, nope,” Masters interjects. We won’t use real guts. They’re disgusting!” Amidst the “ooh’s and “yeck’s, Gates and Masters pull an assortment of vinyl entrails and limbs out of a box. “It’s the same stuff your car seats are made out of,” says Gates. “We made lots of those, and they look terrific on film.” They look great up close, too! Unable to resist, this daring reporter picks up a dismembered hand with karo blood and proceeds to get the sticky crap all over himself.

Cinefantastique v18n02-03 (March 1988)

Masters laments the dangerously short lead time they experienced in producing prosthetic pieces for Kristel. “Many, many months back, Christopher Coppola, Steve Neill and myself had a gang meeting to discuss the look of the effects. We talked about an EC Comics look, and Chris obviously wanted a heavy-duty stylized makeup. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to cast Kristel’s face until 10 days before shooting. In prosthetic work, you like to get at least four weeks of sculpting and baking the pieces so you get enough good ones to use. In this case, I had one day to sculpt and another to do the subtler pieces. I just wish we had more time to develop the transformation scenes. But so far, Chris seems to be pleased.”

Wandering around their land of magic, one cannot ignore the staring wax faces of the dummies that were not built specifically for the film. These wax figures originally came out of a Washington, DC, wax museum, explains Gates. They were made during the 1950s by a European sculptor. They are authentic pieces. When the museum closed some years back, someone in Greenville, North Carolina bought them. They’ve been rotting away in a warehouse until the production company rented the whole lot of them for about $3,000. “The faces of many of these were reconstructed and changed by adding clay to match the motifs that Christopher wanted to see in the film,” Gates adds, “Tony Elwood and another fellow did this work. They took a historical figure like John Wilkes Booth and turned him into Dracula.”

“Sylvia Kristel has been super about all of this,” points out Masters. “You can usually tell when the life casts are being made how an actor or actress will react to the on-set makeup routines. She has been such a champ that even when I avoided doing certain things that I thought would discomfort her, she’d insist that it be done if it would make the effect look better. Once she got accustomed to the prosthetics and how to use them facially, she almost looked forward to the makeup sessions.”

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Back out on a Wilmington street where a scene is filming, the publicist makes a comment that the usually dull town is enchanted by the DEG presence in their community. This is

hot nuts for the folks down here, real big time. I station myself in the building where the coffee thermos resides and the production assistants are cordial and informative. A huge plate glass window separates us from the police siege on the wax museum. An hour and three takes later, someone calls break and I am introduced to the Dracula’s Widow co-producer/unit manager and first assistant director, Steve Traxler. Recognizing his name from years past, I ask him if there would ever be a sequel to his cult classic, Spawn of the Slithis (1978).

  Interview with Director Christopher Coppola

Christopher Coppola
Christopher Coppola

 What stage were you at in your life when Dracula’s Widow landed in your lap?

Christopher Coppola: I was fresh out of art school and wanted to do something edgy. I still remember the first meeting I had with Dino De Laurentiis. He was going over the script, and he put it down, looked at me and said, “How old are you? You are just a baby!” I said, “No sir, I’m 24.” He said, “This script is shit!” and I told him I wanted to change it, to make it more like a noir.

 What about the cast? Was Kristel your first choice?

Christopher Coppola: No.. I wanted Isabella Rossellini. Isabella loved the idea too. But Dino wanted Sylvia.

 Why?

Christopher Coppola: I don’t know. He thought she was so hot in Emmanuelle and she wasbut that was over 10 years earlier and she was too old. Dino kept saying he wanted more-as he called them—”watermelons” in the film…and Sylvia never even did nudity, so it didn’t make sense.

 And Rossellini had by then been in De Laurentiis’ production of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet…and she was naked quite a bit!

Christopher Coppola: I know, I know…I never understood it.

 The film got terrible reviews, but I always loved how outright weird, how arch and defiantly out of step it was.

Christopher Coppola: Thank you. I was trying to do something operatic and different—to bring the monster out into the light. I wanted to add primary colors, give it a very intense, extremely stylized tone. I was always a fan of EC Comics and wanted it to feel like them.

 Your brother Nicolas often talks about your father, about how he taught you all to sort of “think in the abstract.” How did your dad help shape your sensibilities?

Christopher Coppola: My father was this great thinker. A great artist. He thought anyone who didn’t know who Picasso was, was an idiot. He thought anyone who didn’t know who Fellini was, was an idiot. But that was offset by my mother, who wasn’t well, mentally. Nicolas and I had an interesting upbringing to draw from. I used to hold séances with Nic, make Super-8 movies… I took care of my brother, I kept it all together. I became very intense, a bit arrogant. I wrote an opera when I was 16.

 Nic chose a different path than you did. But both of you have made your presences known as artists who are unpredictable.

Christopher Coppola: Yes—we always had this need to be creative, to express ourselves. It’s why Nic used to feel like he had to make a point, like eating that cockroach in Vampire’s Kiss.

 Looking back at Dracula’s Widow now, how do you feel about it?

Christopher Coppola: I like it; it’s part of my history. It still stands alone as this arty vampire movie. And it’s funny when you see it dubbed into other languages like Russian, Italian and Japanese. Trust me…

Working in the production end of several major films for the past six years, Traxler has obviously become an experienced pro who, on Dracula’s Widow, juggles many balls in the air. I’ve been on Dracula’s Widow for six months. Our principal photography wraps this week. I’m in charge of the post production team as well, so I’ll stay on the picture after we do pick-up shots next week and head out to the West Coast for the post work.

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This picture has a special style. We’re going for the comic book imagery of the ’50s. I know Creepshow tried for that look, but their one sheets advertisements conveyed it better than the movie itself. Based on what I’ve seen of the rushes, we’ve been very successful in keeping that EC Comics look throughout the film.”

Knowing the mechanics of filmmaking to the largest degree, does Traxler find it irritating to work with a first-time director? This is Chris first picture,” he smiles, adding a fatherly tone to his voice. “He makes the same mistakes we all made, but he does bring a refreshing and innovative ability. He hasn’t been a problem for me. He listens when there’s something to listen to, and his ideas are very sound for this project. He did a nice rewrite on the script, too. The whole feeling on this picture has been very very good.”

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With break time over and Traxler called back to duty. the publicist is ready to pack it in for the night. Your correspondent takes a weary ride back to the hotel. Despite offering no interviews with Coppola, Kristel or Von Dohlen, this set visit nevertheless managed to yield some fine moments after the scheduling mishap it suffered earlier in the day. Tomorrow will be a waste, since everyone will again be sleeping while this reporter has a date with a Piedmont 737.

The DEG organization has since undergone strenuous restructuring, with its creator stepping down and layoff notices stuffing scores of pay envelopes. I recall reading DEG issued production notes with Coppola quoted, “You’ll probably never see a horror film so elegant, referring to his visions of what Dracula’s Widow will achieve. Let’s hope he got his chance before “The House That Dino Built” needed a paint job.

CAST/CREW
Directed Christopher Coppola
Produced Stephen Traxler

Written
Kathryn Ann Thomas
Christopher Coppola

Sylvia Kristel as Vanessa
Josef Sommer as Lt. Hap Lannon
Lenny von Dohlen as Raymond Everett
Marc Coppola as Brad
Stefan Schnabel as Helsing
Rachel Jones as Jenny Harker
Duke Ernsberger as Bart
CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cinefantastique v18n02-03
Fangoria#72
Fangoria#296

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