If there is one thing that I hoped for with this year’s Halloween Horrors series more than in years past, it’s that the topics covered in this year’s series would take you, the reader, back to the Halloweens of your childhood. I hoped, more so this year than in others, that these various posts from different contributors would remind of us simpler, less jaded times, reminding us why we fell in love with the holiday to begin with. The following review provides just another reason for some of us.
Please welcome our next debuting contributor, JL Hatcher. A life-long “monster kid”, JL has recently brought his exemplary art talents to the pages of Drive-In Asylum, where he’s already adding an extra layer of class and expertise to what has always been a top-notch publication. He’s incredibly passionate about the darkest corners of horror history, which shines through in his art, as well as in today’s piece.
There’s a lesson to be learned here as well. Remain true to your passions. Do what you feel inside you. Reach for your dreams. Pick one. They all fit.
The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle
1973 – “The Wonderful World of Disney” – NBC
Directed by Robert Totten – Scholastic Book Services novelization by Vic Crume
ORIGINAL AIRDATE: January 7th, 1973
You will search in vain in the Psychotronic Film Guide (or its sequel, the Psychotronic Video Guide). You will come up empty handed after perusing the Phantom of the Movies Videoscope. A six-inch thick edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide will be of no use. Even volumes one and two of Video Trash & Treasures will prove of no avail if some vague, Seventies tee-vee memory — something about Johnny Whitaker fighting jewel thieves while filming a Super 8 Dracula movie — sends you in search of The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle.
It ain’t there.
Nevertheless, it exists. A single Youtube channel — Obsolete Video — has uploaded both parts of this made-for-TV movie. Apparently, it was recorded off the Disney Channel during a Halloween-themed edition of “Vault Disney.” Originally, however, The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle appeared on “The Wonderful World of Disney” in typical two-part fashion on January, 7 and 14, 1973.
Perhaps this movie is so hard to come by because it appeared during a fallow period in monster fandom. The Sixties monster craze was long gone. No “Big Frankie” or “Forgotten Prisoner of Castle Mare” graced the toy shelves of your local Zayre or K-Mart. The Eighties paperback horror boom was still very much over the horizon. Although The Exorcist would break box-office records come December, adults still felt somewhat squeamish about reading horror novels or enthusing about monster movies in public. Star Wars would not appear for another four years. Maybe, just maybe, you could run across an interesting Mego-manufactured Batman or Planet of the Apes action figure. And perhaps, if you begged your parents and if you survived an episode of “Barnaby Jones,” you could catch Taste the Blood of Dracula on the CBS Late Movie.
In childhood, we haven’t yet run the gamut of what pop culture has to offer. We’re primed to receive each encountered object — a toy, a movie, a book — as a one-of-a-kind treasure. Even a single toy flying saucer – which, if I recall correctly, could fire a plastic missile — gleaned from a box of Quisp cereal is a glittering diamond in the rough.
Couple that dewy-eyed, uber-enthused mindset with an actual paucity of fantasy and horror related offerings and you have the situation of the monster kid of 1973. Every experience of pop culture spookiness was a hard won, strategically planned acquisition. Every drug store that carried Creepy, Eerie, and Famous Monsters of Filmland was pinned on a wall map. Every monster movie broadcast on local television (except those beyond reach in that damnably inaccessible SuperStation in Atlanta) was highlighted in TV Guide. Every convenience store with a spinner rack featuring “The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves” or “House of Mystery” existed in relation to the specific local highway Mom would take if she happened to say out loud, “I’m going out to pick up a few groceries. Does anybody want to go?”
Enter The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle. Enter a movie in which kids make their own monster movie with their own Super 8 camera with access to an ancient, stone lighthouse situated on the rocky cliffs of some seaside, east coast village straight out of “Dark Shadows” and with the able assistance of a teenaged girl who doesn’t mind posing in her swimsuit.
Our story begins with what might have been — when I encountered this movie at the age of 9 — my first encounter with a film within a film. Surrounded by almost cartoonish Gothic atmosphere, an elderly grave robber uncovers a casket. Prying open the lid, he discovers an altogether undeteriorated corpse dressed in a tuxedo and cape. The old man is, of course, delighted. And, being in a movie, he begins to speak to the corpse.
“Now, what do we have here? You won’t be missin’ this, now will you?”
It so happens a fancy, gold necklace gets tangled with a wooden stake rammed into the corpse’s chest. So the grave robber wriggles the stake free. The corpse opens its eyes and takes a sudden breath. Spying the grave robber, it grabs the poor fellow by the throat.
As the camera pulls back, we discover a dark theater where this movie is being watched by three boys: Alfie Booth (played by Johnny Whitaker), his younger brother, Leonard (Scott C. Kolden), and their pal, Morgan (Gerald Michenaud). Morgan elbows Alfie and nods toward Leonard. As Dracula feasts on the grave robber, Leonard is fearfully shrinking in his seat.
After the movie, as the kids amble along a city street, we discover Alfie wants to make monster movies and Morgan is ready and willing to portray Count Dracula. Alfie even has a Super 8 camera, but summer has arrived and the Booth family will be headed for some distant seaside village so Mom (Mariette Hartley) can finish writing a mystery novel. Since Leonard doesn’t like scary movies and refuses to portray the Count, Alfie’s monster movie plans are ruined.
At this point, the kids turn a corner to discover a jewelry store has been robbed. An alarm is ringing. With a screech of tires, cop cars fishtail into view. Alfie, Leonard, and Morgan rush up a fire escape to see what will transpire. A police officer demands their assistance — “Hey! You kids! Get down here!” — then allows them to hang around while dusting for fingerprints. As Alfie returns to complaining about his ruined Dracula film, Leonard, prompted by what he has just seen, decides he wants to be a detective.
I go into such dense preliminary detail only to say that here, primed and ready, is the quintessential message of all kid-oriented films.
Yes, you have your plans. Yes, the adults with their obscure, clueless priorities constantly ruin your plans. However, if you doggedly pursue your plans despite the adults in your life, circumstances will arrange themselves gradually, mysteriously, ineluctably. These circumstances — although, at first, they may seem entirely unrelated — will favor your dream pursuit. Moreover, a secret Ur-narrative will be revealed so that everything you love, everything the adults dismiss as silly and childish, will turn out to have served a deeper, higher purpose. Blinking in the sunlight, the adults will realize you were right all along, and you will stand there, smiling, arm-in-arm with your pals as the bad guys are carted away.
In this case, the gods use Alfie’s “damn the torpedoes” movie mania and Leonard’s new Sherlock Holmes fixation to bring jewel thieves to justice. A stray dog that habitually steals bright objects (like stolen jewels?) becomes Leonard’s “Watson.” A ruby ring in a jewelry store window display (a front for the thieves? in the seaside village?) becomes the “Dracula ring” that Alfie simply must feature in his film. The lighthouse where the thieves (Clu Gulager and Mills Watson) are hiding becomes the Castle Dracula where Alfie, Leonard, and their teenaged heroine, Jean (Maggie Wellman), frame their narrative.
Every adult machination leads to futility. Every kid machination leads us closer to what the Kid Movie Gods have in mind.
In similar stories, “machinations” would mean the kids were intent upon finding a treasure, solving a mystery, or saving a kindly adult’s failing business. The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle, however, ramps up interest for the monster kid of ’73 by centering its plot on a highly unusual kid activity.
Alfie, Super 8 camera in hand, directs Leonard, who has consented to don the cape and fangs after all. They have chosen to locate their shot in a back alley of the seaside village. Before this moment, it was all talk — just like my own dreams of making movies – but here were Alfie and Leonard, blocking out a scene.
I clearly recall my shock at realizing: “These kids are actually making a monster movie!”
And we learn how it’s done. Our view switches to the camera’s POV. As Alfie gives directions — “Okay. Dracula enters. A little more movement of the cape now. Good. Now move behind the trash can. Okay. Now move toward the other trash can. Good. Good cape work!” — a foley effect of swirling, whirling wind comes out of nowhere. Everything shifts to grainy, spooky slow motion. Leonard departs from his shadowy hiding place, lifts his black cape so the wind will catch it, and lopes toward the camera.
“That’s it!” Alfie exclaims. “Perfect!”
Later, the movie will show us — almost as an afterthought — Alfie sitting at the dining room table, steadily operating a Super 8 film splicer and editing station to piece together his magnum opus.
How many monster kids sat up straight in front of the TV on that wintery January night in 1973 and exclaimed, “Holy crap! You mean a kid can actually make a monster movie?! Where do I get my camera? Where do I get that editing get-up?”
In showing us such scenes, The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle triple-underlines the “preferential option for the kids” present in all the teen mystery books we gathered from the library back in the Seventies — or received in our classroom by way of Scholastic Book Services. The stories favored kid priorities, kid obsessions over the apparent rat race of adulthood.
It was as if they said, “Pretend. Have fun. Be what you love. The mysteries will follow.”
The Three Investigators (Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews) didn’t solve mysteries to make a buck. They solved mysteries because they wanted to be detectives. It just so happened being detectives involved constructing a secret Headquarters (in the junk yard run by Jupiter’s aunt and uncle), establishing a variety of secret entrances to Headquarters (Emergency One, Secret Four, Tunnel Two, Easy Three, Red Gate Rover, Green Gate One), learning to run a printing press so you could make your own business cards (“We Investigate Anything”), carrying flashlights and magnifying glasses and chalk to mark your way (with a logo-like question mark) while looking for clues, and using a chauffeured Rolls Royce sedan to get around (because Jupiter won a contest by figuring out how many beans were in a jar).
That’s a lot of doing. The kids do a lot in these stories. They’re constantly running from one plot point to another, constantly equipping themselves with gear. “That’s the Dracula ring I need for my picture!” But this is all part of being. Why do you solve mysteries? Because you’re a detective. “Here’s my card.” And why are you a detective? Because it’s cool.
The adults, to the contrary, are affably misguided, clueless, nearly blank in their thinking. And this is precisely because they’ve got things backward. “If I can only steal enough jewels, then I can finally get enough breathing room in my life to settle down into being.”
The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle captures this childhood genius. When Leonard lifts his black cape to catch the wind and runs at the camera bearing those absurdly long fangs, he is being Dracula. When he sews together two baseball caps so that the two visors, now facing opposite directions, become a Deerstalker cap, he is being Sherlock Holmes. When he does crazy things — like attempt to retrieve a stolen necklace that has half fallen down a cliff — it’s because not saving the necklace would be a betrayal of what he has become.
When Alfie cries, “That’s it! Perfect!” as Leonard flaps his cape, it’s because that sense of being has hit precisely the right note. It’s the same feeling I had when I happened across a battered, twelve cent copy of The Phantom Stranger in a local barber shop. It’s the same delight I felt at the sight of a simple yet beautifully designed package of “Vampire Blood” or “Glow Goop” or “Scar Stuff” in the Halloween aisle at K-Mart.
Something impossibly right had happened.
“That’s it! Perfect!”
Apparently, when kids play with toys they set the world right again. It just so happens that in this world the gods have several thorny problems to solve, so they put those same kids to work solving mysteries — by way of playing with toys.
So make your Dracula movie, kid. Come what may. The gods are on your side.