A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 27): The Blood Drinkers (1964)

At the risk of sounding grandiose and literary, there truly is something to celluloid itself as an evocative medium. What I mean is, film has texture. It makes its presence known. It shows its age over time; it has a three dimensional quality to it that acts on the subconscious like a stereogram: if you cross your eyes, perhaps something will pop out. When the grain of film matches a moonless night, or backlit fog, it speaks volumes in silence. To best appreciate The Blood Drinkers is to embrace the evocative character of film itself. The medium elevates the material.

The Blood Drinkers is unmistakably a Filipino horror feature – its correct title is Kulay dugo ang gabi, aka Blood is the Color of Night, but neither title is really wrong. Although it is the first Filipino horror film shot in some color, that junk was expensive, so much of the film is shot in black and white but tinted into various monochromatic hues. The effect is directly addressed within the movie as a narrative device – it is, as a film schooler would say, diagetic. When the presence of the evil Dr. Marco and his vampiric minions reach proximity of the characters, the film itself will shoot to blood red, and the characters themselves will look around and exclaim, “It’s all red!” Tinting is a beautiful mechanism for generating menace, atmosphere, and meaning on a miniscule budget. If Guy Maddin thought of it, we would call it High Art.

So when we are in blue tint, evil has no power; when it is red, Darkness has dominion; when we shoot in color, God’s presence is invoked. Christianity is all over The Blood Drinkers, effecting its ultimate moral and even the reveal of the third act. Such a thing would seem out of place, until you reconcile the fact it is a vampire film, with striking integrity to genre tradition – while adding Filipino tradition to the mixture. The Christian philosophizing and narrative reconciliation seems forced into the narrative when taken out of its context. Indeed, it may turn off modern viewers. But something about its earnestness makes it refreshing (more on that in a moment).

The film is much the same as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” – a mysterious aristocrat with a penchant for blood arrives on an unsuspecting community, and is stopped in his killing spree by a Van Helsing-ish religion and faith authority figure. But it is also a bit of the Coppola filmed version, as well – the Count (in this case, Marco) has his long lost love as emotional baggage (the voluptuous Katrina), and his aim in The Blood Drinkers is to resurrect their passion, and therefore her. Katrina is a vampire, but barely – she needs a new heart. Who better for a new one than Katrina’s estranged twin sister, Charito?

This introduces what may be the most interesting component of The Blood Drinkers: its tale of deep-seeded familial decay. Charito and Katrina have a mother, Doña Marisa, who is in cahoots with the vampire Marco, and actually wants to see him take Charito’s heart, and have Katrina live as a vampire. As long as Katrina is some kind of alive, that is all that really matters. Like Marco, Doña Marisa is a landowner and local royalty, so has political and social sway over the rural village people, including the police and Charito’s foster parents. When Doña Marisa left to go abroad, she could only take one of the twins – Charito stayed, and Katrina left. It was destiny that brought Katrina and Marco together abroad, but a cruel twist of fate that made it Katrina. One is left to wonder if the same thing would have happened anyway if the names were swapped. Regardless, Doña Marisa has a strange, unsaid contempt for Charito that allows her to offer this daughter for the other.

Soon, Charito starts to wander off at night, and is stalked by a giant rubbery bat – a minion of the evil Marco. She slowly starts to fall under Marco’s spell; the heart has to be turned, too, it turns out. This is made more difficult by the presence of the suave Victor, who is always there to bring her around, and get in trouble with the police in his pursuit of the evil Marco. Victor’s presence is clearly window dressing, but he does have on screen charisma – often resembling Nikkatsu Diamond Guy, Ishihara Yujiro. But despite all his efforts, it is not really he and his buddies that save the day, but the power of God.

The Blood Drinkers has its moments of vibrant color – but interestingly, these are left to un-horror moments of peace and, it is inferred, the presence of God, which in this film, is simply the absence of evil. It is a fascinating device and a kind of madness I have not seen in a film of its kind before. It is holy/wholly (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) unique, and serves the film’s entire climax. After Charito is brought out of her spell by a light exorcism at the church, complete with a heavenly chorus and a Divine Light, Charito urges the Van Helsingish Priest to say a prayer for Katrina. He does – and the whole film changes. The stained glass becomes vibrant, and Dr. Marco seems astonished – he and Katrina look at each other and they exclaim, “We’re free.” They literally frolic in slow motion in the woods and profess their undying love for each other. The film falls back into sin, of course, for its monstrous showdown, but this incomprehensible sequence is framed by the following pontifical narration:

“The power of prayer is beyond our comprehension. For a time it might have appeared that we had conquered and overcome the monstrous evil that was in Dr. Marco.” (emphasis mine)

“Yet there is no power in prayer without faith, and this faith must be in our own selves. And so the Devil again had his way.”

So The Blood Drinkers is often overbearing, sentimental, and frankly bizarre in its narrative execution. Yet, it is religiously a superior picture, trying to say something important in perhaps the worst possible environment. Whatever one may think of this religious turn of events, the cinematography revels in its inky blacks and chiaroscuro; the music is full of synthy goodness; and the memorable images are consistent. To quote from another film, I’m not even mad. I’m kinda impressed.

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