Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Vampire Burlesque

      Between the under-seen Valentino (1977) and the under-valued Altered States (1980), visionary British director Ken Russell was in preparation to direct a film adaptation of Bram Stoker's inextinguishable creation, Dracula. Up to that point, the bulk of Russell's oeuvre had focused on the arts; music in general. His black and white productions for the BBC (1959 to 1970) have become essential entries in the artist's celebrated and infamous canon.

Sandwiched firmly in between two inarguable masterworks, Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971), Russell's The Music Lovers (1970) is a big screen take on famed Russian composer Tchaikovsky's tortured life and perhaps the world's first extended music video. For the next six years of his most highly celebrated creative cycle, Russell would devote nearly every film project to the exaltation of the arts, and the artist as tragic hero in particular.

above top: Richard Chamberlain as Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers (1970) 
above bottom: Oliver Reed as Father Urbain Grandier in The Devils (1971)

Whether filming the life of obscure French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in Savage Messiah (1972) or turning the relationship between 19th-century composers Franz Liszt and the antisemitic Richard Wagner into a cosmic battle invoking vampires, nazis, spaceships and Frankenstein's Monster in the delirious Lisztomania (1975), Russell seemed to be exorcising his own demons in the process.

Like Russell himself, his Dracula would have been (as Russell biographer Joseph Lanza puts it) "a great patron of the arts", who only sought to immortalize fellow creative souls as opposed to immolating them for his own survival. An excerpt of Dracula's dialog from Russell's script:

"What is the love of God? Little by little he reveals to you the wonders of the earth, like a parent offering a child a glittering box of sweets, then just as you reach out eagerly, he snatches them away. Those whom he loves, die as quickly as May flies while we, whom he hates, live on and on...How jealously God guards His immortality. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Tchaikovsky: as soon as they challenged him with their vision of heaven, he cut them down - until we started to fight him. Now some of our greatest artists are Nosferatu. But if it were known, they would be persecuted for sorcery, demonology, persecuted for creating eternal beauty. So, once in a lifetime, they change their identity, even their style."
It almost seems natural that Russell's attention at some point would turn to Stoker's immortal Count. Lisztomania, which starred The Who front man Roger Daltrey (who also starred in Russell's big screen adaptation of The Who's Tommy the same year), is effectively a partial homage to the Hammer Films vampire movie. Russell's elaborately conceived version of Dracula was intended to be the next phase in his alchemical melding of burlesque, rock musical and high art.

above: vampires psychic and literal in Russell's Lisztomania (1975): Paul Nicholas as Richard Wagner the Vampire about to suck the life force from his contemporary Franz Liszt played by Roger Daltrey 

He set his sights on none other than Mick Fleetwood, co-founder and drummer of the ineffably popular band Fleetwood Mac, who at the time were scaling the absolute summit of their long and winding career. Russell (overcoming a fear of flying) jetted to the States to meet with the naturally pale and gaunt Fleetwood, a fellow Englishman, who was on tour with his band in Washington, D.C.

The show got called off fortuitously giving Russell and Fleetwood a real chance to talk shop. Russell had high hopes of Fleetwood Mac scoring the film. Fleetwood even agreed to have a pint of his own blood removed everyday during the shoot, in some perverted ode to the Stanislavski craft of Method acting. But all of this fruitful imagining was not to be.

above left: Max Schreck in Nosferatu (1922); above right: Mick Fleetwood with Stevie Nicks circa late 70s
below: Michael John Kells "Mick" Fleetwood

The backing fell out when not one, but two Dracula films hit the big screen, John Badham's Dracula (1979) starring Frank Langella (reprising his hit Broadway role) and Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) with Klaus Kinski in a practically shot-for-shot remake of Murnau's silent masterpiece Nosferatu (1922). Russell would eventually return to Stoker's world (albeit loosely) with a film adaptation of The Lair of the White Worm (1988).

One can only imagine the fevered pitch and surreal sublimity of Russell's intended Dracula flick, with Mick Fleetwood in fangs of all people, and Lindsey Buckingham's guitar on the soundtrack no less. It's easily one of the more epic and ponderous unrealized projects in film history, that much is certain.

above top: Bram Stoker (1947 - 1912); above bottom: Ken Russell (1927 - 2011)

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