Edge of the Axe

UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE
Color, 1959, 100 mins. 35 secs.
Directed by Steno
Starring Renato Rascel, Christopher Lee, Sylva Koscina, Susanne Loret
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

THE SECRET OF THE RED ORCHID
B&W, 1962, 84 mins. 17 secs.
Directed by Helmuth Ashley
Starring Adrian Hoven, Marisa Mell, Christopher Lee, Pinkas Braun, Klaus Kinski, Christiane Nielsen, Eric Pohlmann, Fritz Rasp
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Leonine (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.66:1), Retromedia (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)

DARK PLACES
Color, 1974, 90 mins. 45 secs.
Directed by Don Sharp
Starring Christopher Lee, Joan Collins, Herbert Lom, Robert Hardy, Jane Birkin, Jean Marsh
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

DRACULA AND SON
Color, 1976, 99 mins. 13 secs. / 77 mins. 54 secs.
Directed by Édouard Molinaro
Starring Christopher Lee, Bernard Menez, Marie-Hélène Breillat, Catherine Breillat
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Gaumont (DVD) (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

MURDER STORY
Color, 1988, 89 mins. 44 secs.
Directed by Eddie Arno & Markus Innocenti
Starring Christopher Lee, Alexis Denisof, Bruce Boa
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)


One of the most popular of Uncle Was a Vampireall European horror stars and a mainstream crossover Uncle Was a Vampirename thanks to his appearances in multiple big movie series, Christopher Lee had a long and wild career filled with ups and downs as well as many trips around the globe. Though horror fans tend to cherish his extensive work with Hammer the most (along with other films outside the company frequently pairing him with Peter Cushing), he popped up all over Europe in other productions that dabbled in various genres as well. That aspect of his output is the focus of Severin Films' 2022 stacked set The Eurocrypt of Christopher Lee Collection 2, featuring six Blu-ray and a soundtrack CD. You get some desirable rarities here that show off a few different facets of Lee, and you'll probably have the most fun watching them in order to see how his films evolved over the three decades represented here.

First up is the light and amusing Uncle Was a Vampire, originally entitled Tempi duri per i vampiri (or Hard Times for Vampires). This one can claim its status as the screen's first vampire romantic musical comedy, though whether it's the best is up to you Rockula fans out there. Fresh off his iconic role in 1958's Horror of Dracula, Lee gets to spoof his image in record time here dashing about with his familiar cape and showing off a nice pair of fangs. With plans afoot to install a nuclear power plant in the countryside with lots of intrusive dynamiting, Baron Roderico da Frankfurten (Lee) is forced to flee his home in the Carpathians by packing himself in his favorite coffin and taking off in a horse-drawn carriage. Cut to a swanky castle in northern Italy where the last in the line of its owners, Baron Osvaldo Lambertenghi (Rascel), has been forced to sell it off as a hotel where he now works as a bellboy. Osvaldo soon discovers that a new arrival at the hotel is none other than his uncle, Roderico, who wants to hang out below in the crypt and "quench my thirst" now and then on the guests. Uncle Was a VampireOsvaldo's put out by the situation, especially when he gets bitten himself and starts to put the bite on random female Uncle Was a Vampireguests. Along the way you get a robust cast of Euro starlets including Sylva Koscina, Antje Greek, and Susanne Loret, some pretty funny gags, and catchy pop numbers highlighted by the concluding "Dracula Cha-Cha." Shot in sunny Ultrascope, this is just one of many Italian comedies from prolific writer-director Steno who turned out a bunch of Totò titles and the Alberto Sordi classic An American in Rome. Unfortunately it didn't hit the U.S. until 1964 when it went straight to TV from Embassy, cut to 94 minutes and very carelessly dubbed-- even for Lee, who was visibly performing his lines in English anyway. To make matters worse, the film was brutally cropped to 1.33:1 which ruined many of the gags while also obscuring all the lovely scenery.

Fortunately the Severin disc is a much happier state of affairs, sporting the full-length Italian version with optional English subtitles. The film was recorded without live sound so everyone's still looped, but it's a far superior track. Transferred from the only existing film element, a dupe negative, Uncle Was a Vampire looks better here than ever before with its full scope compositions finally restored. It's not in perfect shape with some visible stability issues, but after suffering through awful earlier versions, it's a pretty massive upgrade. Though the packaging indicates "partial English mono" as well, that dub is nowhere to be found here. (You can see the U.S. TV version here if you're so inclined.) However, you do get an alternate Italian TV version from a broadcast master (in rougher shape and framed at 2.00:1) with English subtitles, clocking in at 97m13s. Apart from running at PAL speed, it doesn't seem all that different from the main version but does come with an excellent audio commentary by Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons who reel out lots of info about the cast, Lee's career at the time, the cinematic vampire tropes being lampooned here, the success of Lee's first Hammer Dracula, and the intersection of horror and comedy. Also included is the featurette "Commedia Dracula All'Italiana" (12m35s) with Dr. Pasquale Iannone elaborating on how Lee and Steno's careers ended up crossing on this film as well as more about Racsel's successful comic film career.

Secret of the Red OrchidDisc two marks a very welcome development with the first Secret of the Red OrchidU.S. release of an Edgar Wallace Krimi on Blu-ray as well as the first Wallace title to hit any kind of authorized physical disc. In case you've missed out, a Krimi is the wonderfully Germanic strain of thriller that began in 1959 and continued into the early '70s when it eventually mutated with the Italian giallo a few times. The most famous ones were based on novels by English novelist Wallace (who was insanely popular in Germany) and almost entirely set in England despite being shot in West Germany (or other countries like Denmark on occasion). Delightfully pulpy and very entertaining, the films remain cult favorites in Germany but didn't really catch on in the U.S. despite several titles getting dubbed theatrical or TV releases. Lee turned up in two of them: 1961's The Devil's Daffodil (which he shot in both English and German-langauge versions, being fluent in both languages) and 1963's Das Rätsel der roten Orchidee (The Puzzle of the Red Orchid), which was only shot in German and went straight to American television as The Secret of the Red Orchid. Though based on Wallace books, both films depart from the formula fairly radically with their whodunit elements largely sidelined in favor of bullet-laden crime stories with Lee cast as a dogged officer of the law. Here he's cast as Captain Allerman, a Chicago-based fed who heads to London on the heels of gang leader Kerkie Minelli (Pohlmann) and his vivacious wife, Cora (a scene-stealing Nielsen). There Allerman teams up with London cop Inspector Weston (Hoven) since two rival gangs are extorting rich residents and rubbing out anyone who doesn't pay up. One of the blackmail victims (Krimi vet Rasp) leaves behind an assistant and heir, Lilian (Danger: Diabolik's Mell), as well as a shady, orchid-obsessed nephew, Tanner (Rasp), both of whom figure in the escalating body count. Also on hand is early Krimi mascot Klaus Kinski as a gangster using a tobacco shop as his cover, while regular Wallace comic relief Eddi Arent gets to shine as "Death Butler" Parker whose employers Secret of the Red Orchidkeep getting bumped off.

Secret of the Red OrchidThough it may not be especially representative of the Wallace series as a whole, Red Orchid is a lively affair with a jazzy Peter Thomas score and a clearly committed performance by Lee who even gets to twirl a pair of pistols gunslinger-style in one of the best scenes. You're best going in not even worrying about the whodunit aspect at all as it barely even tries to pay off; instead it's a great showcase for the subgenre's regular stable of actors at their peak with Hoven also slotting in nicely in his one shot at a Wallace hero (though he did appear in and even direct a few other non-Wallace Krimis). Unfortunately most of the charms of this film were smothered by its truly awful English dub, which is how it first hit DVD in a so-so transfer from Retromedia paired up with the solid Bryan Edgar Wallace serial killer shocker, Monster of London City. Licensed from Studiocanal, the official Severin Blu-ray is a massive step up and comparable in quality to the earlier, excellent quality German Blu-ray (which featured both the German and English tracks with passable but very flawed English dubtitles, and no extras). Here you get both tracks as well (DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono) with English SDH tracks for the dub and properly translated subtitles for the German track, as well as the subtitled German trailer. Two audio commentaries are included but can't be assessed here since one features this writer and Troy Howarth; the other has Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw. However, it's worth noting that there's very little overlap between the two so you'll hopefully find both enjoyable.

The sole British horror entry here comes on disc three with Dark Places, a Dark Placessubdued old dark house chiller that started turning up on VHS all over the place in Dark Placesthe mid-'80s from Embassy when star Joan Collins made it big on TV's Dynasty. (In fact, a completely unrelated glamour shot of her adorned the cover.) Collins and Lee are top billed here (as brother and sister no less), though the main character here is really played by Robert Hardy, a character actor familiar to horror fans for Hammer's Demons of the Mind, Psychomania, 10 Rillington Place, the "Ghosts of Venice" episode of Supernatural, and perhaps his best showcase, The Stalls of Barchester. Here he plays Edward Foster, a sanitarium pencil pusher who inherits a large country estate from the late Andrew Marr (also Hardy). As it turns out, Edward has a history of mental issues of his own which comes into play when his former doctor, Dr. Mandeville (Lee), and his sister Sarah (Collins) show up on the scene sniffing around for a supposedly large stash of money somewhere within the walls. The pair also enlist an attorney, Prescott (Lom), to pull it all off while Sarah cozies up to Edward in bed... but the ghosts of the past, whether literal or figurative, might have something else in mind. With an atmosphere similar to Amicus films of the period, this is a minor but atmospheric film that would probably be a lot more Dark Placespopular with someone besides Hardy in the lead; he's a good actor but doesn't have the jittery energy required for something that a Dark Placesname like Robert Powell could've pulled off in his sleep. The other three stars are all in fine form though, plus you get a small role in flashbacks by the always welcome Jane Birkin as well as the imposing Jean Marsh. Director Don Sharp was mostly on autopilot mode by this point (and just worked with Hardy on Psychomania), but he musters up some nice imagery at times including a reasonably violent, time-tripping finale.

While earlier VHS and TV broadcast presentations of Dark Places took the title a little too literally by looking impenetrable much of the time, the Severin disc improves matters considerably with a fresh 4K scan from the recently uncovered internegative. It looks excellent with no significant issues to report, and now even the darkest scenes are perfectly legible. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 tracks (with SDH subs) is also far clearer than before. A commentary by this writer and Howarth is also on this one, so no comments on that; Jonathan Rigby also turns up for "The Cadogan Conversations" (23m45s), chatting affectionately about his first exposure to Lee via a TV airing of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and the time he spent with the actor over the years that eventually led to Rigby's book about him. Also included are the U.S. teaser and a Brazilian TV spot.

The best known film in the set by a fair margin finds Lee returning to vampire comedy territory with Dracula Dracula and Sonand Son (Dracula père et fils), one of numerous Dracula and Sonsuccessful French farces from director Édouard Molinaro who scored a big hit after this with La cage aux folles and had already directed A Pain in the Ass, My Uncle Benjamin, and the Louis de Funès favorites Oscar and Hibernatus. He shows a surprising proficiency here with Gothic horror imagery including a stylish prologue in 1784 Transylvania that could easily pass as a genuine Euro horror film. Speaking fluent French here, Lee stars as... well, the title calls him Dracula but the actor himself and the script don't really commit a proper name. In any case he's the Count, an undead nobleman who sets his eye on pretty Herminie (author and future controversial director Catherine Breillat) with whom he sires a son, Ferdinand. He goes on to vampirize her, but unfortunately a carriage mishap involving sunlight ensures their union is short lived. Now a single dad, the Count raises his goofy and disobedient son (played as an adult by Bernard Ménez) who's still evolving vampire-wise 116 years later in the present day. The family is ejected from their home by the Romanian Communist regime, so off they go only to get split up when they get buried at sea while posing as French sailors. On their separate paths the Count finds a successful career as a horror actor in London while Ferdinand becomes a Parisian security guard, tries to live as a human, and falls for Nicole (played by Catherine Breillat's sister, Marie-Hélène). By the time they reunite, the generation gap really seems to span centuries-- including Dracula and Sona toothpaste commercial Dracula and Sonshowdown.

Though it does feature a few nods to genre spoofing, this isn't really as much of a goofy pastiche as you might expect. It's more of a typically Molinaro droll comedy of manners about the disparity between parents and children, and Lee really breaks from his Dracula persona here with a paler, older character here for his final vampire role. He even smiles a lot, and you get to see him tumbling out of a net filled with dead fish and putting the bite on an inflatable sex doll for good measure. The insanely prolific composer Vladimir Cosma (Diva, The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob) also provides able support with a very catchy score, and the rest of the cast clearly gets the tone right with just the right amount of absurdity to keep it all afloat. Unfortunately that tone went out the window entirely when it was released in the U.S. in 1979, drastically cut down and given a train wreck of an English dub with Ferdinand given a ridiculous Don Adams-style voice. On top of that a shot of Lee doing a film take is repeated ad nauseam with a parade of terrible celebrity impressions, and a pointless animated sequence and tiresome narration were tacked on for good measure. That's a shame as a perfectly serviceable English dub was already prepared in 1976 for export use with Lee providing his own voice. Most Americans were completely deprived of anything resembling the original cut for many years, prompting Michael J. Weldon in his watershed The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film to note that 1979's Love at First Bite had reportedly plagiarized entire scenes without anyone being able to tell. That isn't really accurate as, apart from the castle eviction scenes, there isn't much similarity at all. RCA/Columbia issued the bastardized U.S. version on VHS back in the '80s for anyone masochistic enough to want it, while the original French cut appeared much later in 1998 on American VHS from Water Dracula and SonBearer. The French version later popped up on DVD from Gaumont in 2014 with no English-friendly options.

To put it mildly, the Severin two-disc Blu-ray edition represents the best presentation of the film to date with the original Dracula and SonFrench cut looking spectacular courtesy of a 4K scan of the camera negative. It looks faultless and easily surpasses any version we've had before, including a cavalcade of vibrant colors when they're required. The French and original export English tracks are both here with optional English translated or English SDH subtitles, plus two new audio commentaries. The first features Rigby and Lyons again (logically enough) parsing out the whole issue of which Lee films count as Dracula ones, the backgrounds of all the significant players in front of and behind the camera, ties to a slew of French comedy and horror films, and more. A second track by Kat Ellinger starts out focusing on Molinaro before branching out with an enthusiastic appreciation of the Breillats, the comedic side of Lee and his popping in and out of the continent for jobs, the history of the French Gothic, and the merits of its visual style. In "Let the Son Shine In" (18m51s), Menez looks back at the making of the film and his memories of both Lee and Molinaro as well as his background getting into acting after working as a teacher. (Note that the English subtitles for the extras on this disc don't switch on by default, so keep your remote handy.) A quick archival French TV interview with Lee (1m51s) is really cute as we see him chatting in costume about his role (over lunch, apparently) along with some behind-the-scenes footage. "The Molinaro Tapes" (14m48s) is an audio excerpt from an interview with Frederic Albert Levy from 1979 about his two films for Gaumont (following The Pink Telephone), his positive experiences with Lee, and his positive and negative assessments of the script and the final product. In "Who Was Claude Klotz?" (7m9s), the marvelous filmmaker Patrice Leconte looks back at his three collaborations as a co-writer with the author of this film's source novel (Paris Vampire) which included The Hairdresser's Husband, The Girl on the Train, and Felix & Lola. Klotz is also represented with a 1m49s interview during a 1976 screening of the film in Marseille about his take on the story and its relationship to the Parisian location. The U.S. trailer is also included. Included on a separate Blu-ray is the ridiculous U.S. version, reconstructed here largely using the 4K scan as the source (with extensive reediting, obviously) while slugging in the cartoon opening from a pristine element and the credits from a scratchy but otherwise nice quality print. Murder StoryThe German credit sequences and a TV spot are also included, plus a bonus CD Murder Storyfeaturing the entire 17-track Vladimir Cosma score (identical to its inclusion in the great 2010 box, 51 Bandes Originales pour 51 Films).

Finally we get to the most obscure film(s) in the set as well as the most recent. Shot in Holland and picked up for U.S. distribution by 21st Century just before its 1990 collapse, Murder Story was the feature directing debut and swan song for music video filmmakers Eddie Arno and Markus Innocenti. This feels like something geared for cable TV play but actually delivers some decent late '80s thrills with future Buffy / Angel star (and Alyson Hannigan spouse) Alexis Denisof starring as Tony Zonis, a struggling young aspiring writer. Tired of the adolescent hijinks of his peers, he decides to get some tips from local thriller novelist Willard Hope (Lee). Spinning his wheels as well, Willard agrees to help him out and aides him in choosing a recent conspiracy theory as a central idea. Unfortunately that puts them in the crosshairs of a genuine deadly plot encompassing the adult film trade, assassins, and a missing scientist with a string of murders in his path. On top of that, the shadowy Corrigan (Boa) will stop at nothing to get them out of the way since cohorts are already getting rubbed out left and right. Lightweight but painless, Murder Story finds Lee in a good mood thanks to his slightly meta role; Denisof (using his American accent here) is perfectly fine as well and makes for a Murder Storydecent identity figure for the presumed younger audience who didn't really materialize for this Murder Storyone. It's very chitchatty and unlikely to make anyone's top 10 favorite Lee films (he's a supporting character here at best), but has a cockeyed late '80s Eurocult charm to it.

Though it doesn't have much of a home video history outside of a handful of VHS releases, Murder Story has gotten the prestige treatment here all the same with a fine 2K scan from the camera negative. The film obviously doesn't have the visual allure of Dracula and Son, but it's highly unlikely this could look any better unless some maniac decides to put this on UHD at some point. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English mono track also sounds great and comes with optional English SDH subtitles. Severin's David Gregory moderates a new commentary with Arno and Innocenti that's actually quite fascinating as they lay out how the film came together after an 11-day writing process, the changes that evolved from the original Philadelphia setting, Denisof's professional conduct in his first starring role, the elements that got cut out, working with Lee, the motorcycle stunts, and more. "A British Producer in Holland" (14m) features producer Tom Reeve looking back at why he couldn't work in the U.K. at the time, the financing situation, and the casting process including his prior experience with Mask of MurderLee on The Far Pavillions. Tucked away as an extra here is 1985's Mask of Murder (89m11s), culled from a dated and bumpy tape master (the best source around) but nice to have for posterity. In Nelson, "a small town in Mask of MurderCanada" (actually Sweden), a bug-eyed guy in a white cloth mask is slicing the throats of women on their snowy walks home. From there you get a crime procedural with superintendent Lee roping in Rod Taylor (who's having marital issues with wife Valerie Perrine) to find the killer whose streak continues after they seem to shoot and apprehend the culprit in the middle of the night. It's fairly drab overall with a small role for Lee, but Taylor fans will dig it and the ending has a nice giallo-style panache to it. The striking box package also comes with a hefty 100-page illustrated book, Christopher Lee: A Career in Six Snapshots, with Rigby providing an illuminating and sometimes surprising overview of the star's career from 1959 to 1988 with a number of anecdotes along the way.

Reviewed on July 24, 2022