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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Homegrown Horror: 1978's Nightmare in Blood Unleashes a Vampire on San Francisco

Posted By on Wed, Oct 10, 2012 at 10:30 AM

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Before he replaced Bob Wilkins as the host of Creature Features in 1979, San Francisco Chronicle writer John Stanley made a horror movie called Nightmare in Blood. He was one of hundreds of people who tried their hand at making a low-budget horror movie in the 1970s, and like most of those movies, the end product isn't very good. Heck, Stanley himself has written at some length on his website and elsewhere about the miserable and ultimately disappointing experience of making and living with Nightmare in Blood.

For all its faults, the finished product is not without its charms, especially because he shot it in San Francisco and Oakland, and there's often no better time capsule than a low-budget movie. Stanley and his co-scenarist Kenn Davis were also writing a love letter to the genre fans in the 1970s, the horror / sci-fi / fantasy enthusiasts who weren't nearly as mainstream then as they are now. Like everything else in the movie, the homage doesn't quite click, but it was a noble if misguided effort.

See also:

The Horror! The Horror! Creep Show Historians Talk About Local TV Hosts in Shock It to Me

Retro Nerd Alert No. 3: Bob Wilkins Talks Hardware Wars & More on Creature Features

Space-Con Boldly Goes Where Few Fans Have Gone Before: The First Star Trek Conventions

The basic plot of this oddly overwritten film is that the guest of honor at the San Francisco Horror Convention, a movie star named Malakai who mostly plays vampires, is a real vampire. What a twist! And only the fans can stop him. Unfortunately, Nightmare in Blood doesn't quite presage the Scream / Galaxy Quest genre of "young fans use their knowledge of genre tropes to save the day," because the hero fans in this case are boring grown-ups who are by and large more into mystery stories.

It's hard not to wish the real heroes are the kids waiting for Malakai's arrival outside of Oakland's Fox Theater (played by San Francisco's defunct Avenue Theater in certain long shots). Because it's the mid-1970s, many of them are wearing Planet of the Apes masks.

While the presence of so many fans of a science fiction franchise awaiting the arrival of a horror star from horror movies is arguably crossing the streams, particularly by the standards of 1970s fandoms, it's also a reality of low-budget filmmaking: For crowd scenes, you use who shows up, and it's better to have the screen filled with the local Planet of the Apes fan club than to have nobody on the screen at all.

According to Stanley, the leader of said fan club was a young man named Fred Dekker -- who, perhaps not coincidentally, went on to direct a movie called The Monster Squad about a group of teenage horror fans who fight monsters, including (but not limited to) a vampire. In 2007, I attended a wedding at Dekker's parents' house, and I spent much of the day admiring the framed posters of Dekker's The Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps in the garage. I felt like I was among cult movie royalty, or at least in the home of the parents thereof.

Speaking of cult movie royalty, original Creature Features host Bob Wilkins makes a cameo as an impassive, cigar-smoking bystander at an anti-horror protest outside the theater.

And speaking of both Creature Features and anti-horror protests, a scene takes place on the actual Features set. A horror host who makes you desperately miss Bob Wilkins moderates a debate between a tastefully graying mystery writer -- one of the heroes of the film, for better or worse -- and an anti-horror movie crusader modeled after 1950s anti-comic book crusader Fredric Wertham.

Speaking of comic books -- damn, I am on a roll at speaking of things! -- the real-life San Francisco Comic Book Store at 23rd and Valencia and its proprietor Gary Arlington are recreated in a storefront on 4th St., with actor Drew Eshelman playing the totally make-believe character of "Gary Arlington." The not-make-believe Gary Arlington supplied the set with the comics and accoutrement, and I'd like to think he got a kick out of Eshelman's entertainingly hippie-dippy portrayal of him.

When Eshelman looks into the camera, it's probably because he's waiting for director John Stanley to yell "cut," and when that doesn't happen Eshelman continues right on with the scene. My guess is that Stanley doesn't do so because he's waiting at stage right to play his cameo as "Comic Book Store Patron Who Can't Get Anybody's Attention." And with that, Nightmare in Blood becomes the only movie to feature cameos by both hosts of Creature Features. (To some of us, that's significant.)

Nightmare in Blood was shot in glorious Techniscope, one of my favorite film formats; it's basically 35mm divided horizontally in half, so the director can shoot twice as much footage as they would have with regular film, plus it's automatically in a 2.33:1 widescreen, not coincidentally my favorite aspect ratio. The downside is that when the prints are projected, they're doubled in size, resulting in a noticeably grainy picture. It was developed by Technicolor Italia in 1963, so it was widely used in the ever cost-conscious Italian film industry, particularly Sergio Leone's classic westerns as well as many of the Django films. (I've never liked Quentin Tarantino, and the fact that he didn't shoot his upcoming Django Unchained in Techniscope or some equivalent thereof makes me like him even less.) It was also used in some of the very best American films of the early 1970s, like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop and George Lucas's American Graffiti.

But Nightmare in Blood's cinematographer is not quite up to the challenge of working with Techniscope, made all the more challenging by Stanley's desire to make the film look like an E.C. horror comic, with lots of stark white and pools of black. Unfortunately, the net result (and this is the case with a lot of low-budget movies shot in the 1970s, not just the ones in Techniscope) is a film that's mostly just murky and not very nice to look at.

This scene in the lobby of the Fox Theater -- which Stanley and crew desperately tried to make look spooky and sinister -- is a perfect example of that failed ambition, but hey, at least they had ambition. I've left the director's commentary track on in this clip, and as is so often the case, the commentary is more entertaining than the dialogue. Here, John Stanley and Kenn Davis describe how they came this close to kicking off the blaxploitation genre, but they stuck to their principles and made Nightmare in Blood instead, now describing that decision as a "a terrible mistake."

The Techniscope worked much better in the few daylight scenes, like this one at the Lincoln Park Golf Club. It also has some charmingly lo-fi gore, and nothing says "1970s horror" like a flute on the soundtrack.

Nightmare in Blood is not a "good" film, but it deserves more recognition in the San Francisco horror canon. (If there isn't a San Francisco horror canon, we should totally start one.) It's worth Netflixing just for the commentary track, and Stanley's essays here and here about the ordeal of making the film are also fascinating reads.

Next time, we'll look at what happened when the good folks of Milpitas decided to make a horror-comedy about their landfill-adjacent town. The results were a little stinky.

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Sherilyn Connelly is a San Francisco-based writer. She also curates and hosts Bad Movie Night at The Dark Room, every Sunday at 8pm.

Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF (follow Sherilyn Connelly on Twitter at @sherilyn) and like us on Facebook.

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