Vampires Are Real (Sometimes)

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[Previously in this series: Heartbeat’s Alien AbductionThe Waltons PoltergeistBaywatch Monsters & MermaidsAliens in Dukes of Hazzard and CHiPs]

Starsky & Hutch is the most 1970’s American thing that exists, with a wah-wah heavy funk soundtrack, an iconic car, chunky knitwear like what Giles Brandreth would wear to a swingers party, and a jive-talkin’ pimp so loveable, he presumably encouraged his ladies to unionise. This is the standard bearer for every buddy cop story that followed, and its pally banter, exchanging smiles and unafraid to give each other a matey pat on the shoulder, played in heavy contrast to the era’s arms-length machismo and ball-busting. Consequently, the two leads were derided by fragile Hollywood types at the time as being a bit… gay for their tastes, but nonetheless went onto spawn a thousand onscreen bromances.

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Kitsch as it seems now, the show wasn’t afraid to get gritty, with storylines where Starsky’s girlfriend was shot to death, a mentally-challenged woman got raped by a pair of thugs who’re released when the case is dropped, and a proto-Crank, where Starsky’s poisoned, and they’ve just 24 hours to track down who did it and find the antidote. One infamous episode saw Hutch abducted by mobsters who pumped him full of heroin, and was banned by the BBC for 25 years. They even did the requisite Charlie Manson plot, with cult leader villain of the week Simon Marcus; beard, upside down cross on forehead, blue courtroom jumpsuit. As an interesting sidebar (if you spent a decade working on a novel about Charles Manson), the actor portraying Marcus; the phenomenally-named Aesop Aquarian; lived with the Family at Spahn Ranch, until being approached by the girls to kill Manson’s trial judge and break him out. I should really do a series on the many pseudo-Manson episodes of American serials.

Even with the unavoidable absurdity which creeps into any show running for almost a hundred hours, the episode from October 30th, 1976 was atypically wacky. Ah, the night before Halloween, when the veil is not quite at its thinnest, but I guess thin enough that ghosts and witches can at least push their arses up against it for everyone to see, like a rugby player at his mate’s patio door. A monster tale titled The Vampire leaned in hard to the 70’s new-age boom, along with the simple desire for a good scare. For Brits at least, Starsky & Hutch is subliminally intertwined with spooky shit, having cameoed as posters on the wall of the classic Enfield Poltergeist ‘levitating, and definitely not jumping out of bed’ photos.

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The Vampire‘s certainly got the pedigree, sharing a director with Scream Blacula Scream and both Count Yorga films, and penned by the writing duo behind Poltergeist and a bunch of documentaries about alien abduction. We open on a scary full-moon, before a man wearing a puffy shirt in a candle-adorned attic promises a painting of a woman he’ll bring her back from death with his love. As he whips a cape around his shoulders, we see it’s the great John Saxon — Enter the Dragon; Nightmare on Elm Street — and he’s got a cracking pair of fangs. Then he’s watching a woman through a hedge, lightning illuminating his teeth, and her flares so big, she looks half-woman, half-Shire horse. And he attacks, running at his prey in the exact, exact manner of Bishop Brennan realising he’s been kicked up the arse.

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So, like Columbo, we know who did it, and it’s about waiting for them to figure it out. The lads are grooving away in Huggy Bear’s nightclub (he’s covering for a cousin who’s running a “frog ranch” in Venezuela), and hitting on a pair of hot twins, when they get a call from the captain. The body of a young woman’s been found; puncture wounds on the jugular, traces of human spit on the neck, and all her blood gone. They head to where she worked as a dancer; a club called Slade’s Cave, which is a monument to televisual pseudo-Satanism, faux-rock walls lit by candles, and a big mounted Devil head, as damned hippies lounge around on beanbags watching a half-dressed woman writhe. Slade’s played by Police Academy’s G.W. Bailey; a classic scuzzy burnout in a shark-tooth necklace, calling the cops pigs, and peppering every sentence with judicious use of “man…

Next lead is to the victim’s ballet class, lead by teacher Rene Nadasy (which seems like an anagram, but isn’t, besides the rubbish Ensnared Ya) who’s John Saxon with normal teeth, and slowly hobbling on a cane, inside an unbelievably tight polo neck. It’s broad daylight, and he’s visible in the mirror so… does he even belong on our list of the genuine paranormal? Distraught to hear of the death of his student, he points at another painting on the studio wall, of a ballerina — “that’s my late wife. She died recently too…” The deal here is that Starsky (wearing garlic around his neck) is convinced the killer is a vampire, because “these are modern times, anything’s possible… they’re landing cameras on Mars and taking pictures. Girls are trying out for football teams!” — whereas Hutch is sceptical and pragmatic, tracking down asylum escapees and “blood fetishists.

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Soon, vampire fever’s sweeping the city, with Huggy selling protection kits of a stake and crucifix, and hooking them up with a palm-reader called Guybo, who’s “heavy into the occult and Devil worship trip.” Guybo’s pad is another production designer’s dream; candles, wind-chimes and incense; a crystal ball and skull; questionable African masks and a statue of Vishnu, plus some spooooky rattle drums like from Karate Kid 2. Hutch gives Starsky a fright with a werewolf mask as Guybo enters through a beaded curtain, telling them “some Satanists” led by a man called Seethes hold ceremonies where everyone paints each other’s naked bodies with blood under a full moon. Honestly, that’s the thing I’ve missed the most during Covid.

Back at the ballet studio, Saxon’s eye is caught by the lovely neck of a student, whom he stalks to a parking garage. The lads; following reports of a caped prowler; interrupt his blood-sucking and give chase up to the roof, where he leaps to his escape quite supernaturally — “he flew 25 feet!” And we’re back in the game! Despite all the death, it’s way more comedic than I anticipated, perhaps getting muddled in my mind with The Professionals, as local weirdos falsely confess to being the vampire, including a nerdy Woody Allen type in a red cape calling himself Supergnat. They lean on Saxon, who says he’s had the bum leg since ’61, cutting short a promising ballet career, with a cast-iron alibi for his movements.

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With Saxon out of the frame, they turn up that Seethes is an alias for Slade, who’s “heavy into the Satanic rituals.” Without a warrant, they sneak into his bedroom, which looks like when Aleister Crowley stood in for Handy Andy on Changing Rooms, with more candles, and a nude Suzanne Somers passed out beneath a stained glass window of Baphomet. There’s a cape in the wardrobe, plus a jam jar of red liquid, so they bring him in. Slade explains the blood was just a goat’s, man, and the Satanic ceremonies are a scam aimed at gullible goths. “It’s a living! I got a bank account with 6 figures, how you doin’ sweetheart?” Not great, honestly. I’m clearly in the wrong game, and will be launching a new ‘standing outside in the nip while covered in goat-blood’ Patreon tier forthwith. Who’s in?

But the boys have a new theory. “We think he turned someone on with that blood Devil ritual, only whoever he turned on, turned on all the way and flipped out!” Succinctly put. They recognise Saxon’s wife in a photo from one of the ceremonies, and chase him to the theatre, where he’s lured Suzanne Somers, as the final kill to somehow bring his wife back to life. What follows is two whole minutes of vigorous ballet leaping, with Saxon’s body double, cloak twirling, performing a solo interpretive mating dance to an empty theatre. What a glorious portrait John Saxon is, of masculinity in all its shades; one moment, beating up henchmen with Bruce Lee, and the next, showing off elegant double cabriole derrière like Wayne Sleep at the Royal Variety.

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He goes for the killing bite just as they burst in, hauling up the gantry on a rope, and throwing sandbags at them like Donkey Kong. The climactic fight takes place in the ceiling, with stunt doubles in bad wigs swinging on ropes to a funk-rock soundtrack laden with tiger growls. After trying to bite Starsky, Saxon falls, cape spreading majestically in slow motion, but dies when he hits the ground, having not bothered turning into a bat or owt. Back at Huggy’s, they chat up the hot twins, and for a laugh, Starsky makes them jump with some plastic fangs.

They seem to have happily settled on vampires not being real, and that the killer was just ‘deranged’, but I’m not convinced. We saw him fly off the roof, and could joke shop fangs exert enough bite pressure to kill somebody? Plus, he did drink all that blood and not get sick, and his alibis checked out, including the crippling injury. Did he get turned after wrecking his leg, but Keyser Sozed it to hide that it’d healed? It’s never explained how he planned to revive his wife by murdering, nor why she was pictured at Slade’s ritual, when there was no connection between the pair. But more importantly, multiple times through writing this, I accidentally typed ‘Starkey’, and had to take five minutes to push away the mental picture of David Starkey holding a candelabra while addressing Huggy Bear with the most appalling slurs.

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There’s no such ambiguity with our next case study, an episode of Diagnosis Murder called The Bela Lugosi Blues. Originally a spin-off from the brilliantly Ronseal-titled Jake and the Fatman, the show featuring (best man in the world) Dick Van Dyke as Dr. Mark Sloan ran for a staggering 18 years and 179 episodes, plus five TV movies — all of which seemed to be the only thing on BBC1 during naughties’ afternoons. Stick a pin in any of the synopsis and you’ll land on something golden; a hitman is exposed to the bubonic plague; a rock star’s wife believes he was murdered by an alien; Dr. Sloan switches places with an exact double who’s a gangster; one simply called Murder at the Telethon. Or regard Rear Windows 98, which opens with the murder of Web 1.0 celebrity JenniCam playing herself, and its final regular episode, a parody called The Blair Nurse Project, during which the hospital may be haunted. Bela Lugosi Blues aired on a rather unfestive January 6, 1995, but this is my Patreon, where every day is Halloween.

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Opening shot’s the same as Starsky & Hutch‘s, showing wispy clouds over a full moon, as a woman in a flowing dress runs across a misty field, pursued by the slow strides of a man in a cape. He dramatically unlocks a wooden box, but then — what-ho! — she’s not the helpless victim after all, and advances on him as he stumbles backwards in fear. The camera rises into the sky and we see only the moon over the sound of his horrible screams. Cut to some delightful opening titles, which lay out the character of Mark Sloan via highlight reel of Dick Van Dyke; sneaking, investigating, bound and gagged, cowering from a gun, accidentally shooting a different gun, accompanying a lovely lady to a party, bound and gagged again (this time into an office chair that’s being rolled down the street), panicking at a saucepan fire, and finally, smiling from behind some balloons. Live forever, Dick, I demand it.

DVD’s main co-stars are Scott Baio (presently part of the Trump bois actors posse with Kevin Sorbo and Dean Cain), and real-life hunky son Barry Van Dyke, who plays his fictional hunky son, a policeman. This is another of those ‘busybody who isn’t a cop solving crimes for some reason’ shows, and Dick’s son lets him read the file of the man found bludgeoned in the park, missing all his blood, even letting pop poke around in the mysterious wooden box. Perfectly fine to give your dad the evidence for an ongoing, unsolved murder. Meanwhile, Scott Baio — fellow doctor at the inventively named Community General Hospital — has been voted as one of LA’s most eligible bachelors in Empire Magazine. Note, this is the only time professional actor Scott Baio has ever been in Empire.

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The bachelor contest launch party; waited on by sexy ladies in suit jackets but no trousers; is held at the lavish mansion of publisher and snidey nob-ache, Ivan Bock. Baio’s collared by Mariah Thomas, who’s both the magazine’s editor, and our killer from the opening scene. She introduces all the hunks using conspicuously-worded phrases like “now you’ve sampled the appetisers, it’s time you feasted on the main course… these delectable morsels,” and might as well be holding a knife and fork with a half-chewed dick on the end. Mariah describes people solely with food words, and by my count, says “dessert” at least half a dozen times while hornily pawing at some poor young chap. Baio’s competitors are a financier (Jackie Chiles from Seinfeld), a singer, and star player from the LA Flames (played by the guy who was Faceman in the A-Team pilot before being recast); a team owned by Bock.

As the ball winds down, Baio and Mariah slow-dance in front of the fire, with a tell-tale flicker of candles on the mantle signalling the occult must be near! “You’re quite something, doctor. I think I’ll save you for dessert.” EAT PEOPLE, DO YOU, YEAH?! The singer hunk cuts in, and they trade more innuendo about being “hungry” and “famished,” and soon, more death-screams are coming from the bedroom. The singer’s body is found behind a taco stand the next morning, drained of blood, and with small puncture marks on the neck. Here, Diagnosis Murder‘s approach of chirpily investigating grisly murders is summed up in a single dialogue exchange between father and son. “Steve, I wanna see those bodies.” “I thought you’d never ask!

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The Van Dyke Boys interrupt another bachelor event, nosying around Bock’s mansion, where Mariah’s mysteriously absent during the daytime, and they find a coffin inside an off-limits storage room. Just a perfectly innocent prop, says Bock; “every Halloween, I give a benefit for crippled children.” When Dick goes to open it, Bock pretends to fall over, faking an injury as distraction. All this, plus the lack of mirrors has Dick thinking vampire, and following another fucking bachelor event and more wink-wink dialogue about how “famished” she is, Faceman’s found dead in a dumpster by some binmen. Dick illegally breaks into Bock’s mansion for another wander, dramatically pulling back curtains to reveal there’s nothing behind them, and quite possibly doing a big poo in the toilet, although they don’t show it. Eventually he finds the coffin, which is also empty.

But Baio’s happy as Larry, all his hunk competition dead, and due to get his hole after a dinner date with Mariah tonight. “If things go well, I’m gonna be dessert!” Christ, now he’s at it. He laughs off Dick’s warning she’s a vampire for more slow-dancing in front of the fire. “I’m hungry,” she says. Baio replies “I’m saving myself for dessert.” Oh, give it a rest. “I could go for a little Italian… I like to eat in.” She directs him to the bedroom, with the instruction “get naked,” and as she ascends the stairs for the kill, Dick Van Helsing rings the doorbell.

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Here, we get an exposition dump. She was killing the hunks so Ivan Bock could cash a $20m life insurance policy on the football player, in exchange for a valid passport, as hers expired in 1938. Yes, she’s a real, centuries old vampire, although doesn’t sleep in a coffin (why did Bock pretend to fall over then?). She demonstrates her vampiric strength by hurling Dick across the room, in an impact that would’ve killed him, and then… she flies. “Holy mother of God…” mutters the elderly Dick Van Dyke, before being chucked into the wall again (with a stunt double that looks about twenty, in the sort of fake tash you’d get out of a Christmas cracker). Scott Baio breaks a broom handle over her back, but gets tossed too. “You don’t mind if I start with dessert, do you, doctor?” But as she levitates across to feast on Baio, Mariah accidentally impales herself on the broken broom; albeit in the stomach and not the heart, and as her voice goes all demonic, she dies, but doesn’t turn to ash or anything.

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As a postscript, the DA’s got such a strong case against Bock, he’s likely headed to death row, while Dyke Jr has the mysterious wooden box, and “asked the crime lab to try and reconstruct what was in it” — you wot m8? Through, I guess, fucking magic, they’ve ‘reconstructed’ the contents, as an intricately carved wooden stake. Dick and Scott Baio exchange a look; the sort of look that only comes from a shared experience nobody else could understand; a secret look containing but a single, unspoken word. Dessert.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as £1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my videos, my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi or some PayPal cash.

~ by Stuart on November 5, 2021.

5 Responses to “Vampires Are Real (Sometimes)”

  1. When is your next article up?

  2. Keep up the good work.

  3. It’s worth noting that as “Diagnosis: Murder” shares a universe with the proper “Mission: Impossible” (i.e. not the Tom Cruise version), there’s fodder for the IM Force taking on vampires…

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