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FOR MORE than 18 years, "Nightmare in Blood" was thought to be a lost cult film. Produced in the early 1970s, this portrait of a Hollywood actor who specializes in vampire roles and is the guest of honor at a San Francisco horror convention saw theatrical distribution from 1978-82, and then went into home video in 1985 but without having wide television exposure. After that it seemed to vanish as mysteriously as ghostly spectres in a haunted mansion.
The horror film took on some notoriety because of its unusual depiction of the world of horror and fantasy fandom, a subject rarely dealt with on the screen. Adding to its "legend" was the fact that the director, John Stanley, was part of that world of fandom himself, having hosted "Creature Features" in the San Francisco Bay Area for six years (1979-84) at KTVU-TV. During those years he had gained a reputation as a horror-host icon for his unusually in-depth interviews with stars and filmmakers. In fact, Stanley had been profiled in Elena M. Watson's "Television Horror Movie Hosts" in 1991, a study of the best of the denizens of late-night airwaves. He also popped up on American Movie Classics that same year, introducing Howard Hawks' "The Thing." And he was well known to horror and science-fiction fans for his six editions of "The Creature Features Movie Guide," beginning in 1980 and climaxing as recently as 2000.
A ripped-off version of "Nightmare in Blood," retitled "Horror Convention," had surfaced in England, and word came across the Internet that the film's main character, Malakai, had become a cult figure in South Korea-facts that further whetted the appetite of those who had never had the chance to see it.

Now that chance has come. In February, 2004, Image Entertainment released a special edition version of "Nightmare in Blood," complete with a commentary track by Stanley and his producing partner, Kenn Davis. There is also a half-hour compilation of some of Stanley's work during his "Creature Features" days, including interviews with Ray Bradbury and Leonard Maltin. Fans will be delighted to note that "Nightmare" comes to the DVD format in its wide-screen Techniscope process-an anamorphic system developed by Technicolor that was used to make hundreds of features during the 1960s and '70s. The Image Entertainment DVD is a technically superior version compared to the pan-and-scan copy released in VHS back in the '80s.

Kenn Davis, a surrealism painter and graphics artist, had first met Stanley while working at the San Francisco Chronicle as a photo retoucher. Stanley was then one of the paper's busiest entertainment writers, covering movies and television and specializing in celebrity interviews. Driving home together after work, they discovered they shared an enthusiasm for genre movies. In 1970 they decided to write a screenplay, "The Dark Side of the Hunt," about a black San Francisco private eye-before anyone had heard of John Shaft-but the idea never sold so they decided to try a horror film using fandom as the backdrop.

"Sci-fi and horror conventions were already growing in popularity then," recalled Stanley, "so Kenn and I came up with this idea of a Hollywood actor named Malakai who specializes in vampire roles. And we thought it would be a neat idea to see him arrive at the convention in a coffin, step out and sign autographs for his fans. We made Malakai into a top box-office star who always dressed in a Dracula-style garb, who was only seen at night and who stayed in close proximity to the coffin, all for show. But in reality, we decided, Malakai would be a real vampire, centuries old, with history going back to the Dark Ages and up through the death camps of Adolf Hitler. We thought it would be a fascinating idea to make him a real vampire who seeks out victims at the convention with the help of two henchmen. So we disguised the killer-helpers as Hollywood public-relations men (known in the trade, ironically, as 'hatchetmen') who travel with Malakai. We decided to keep the true identities of B.B. and Harris-they are based on real-life murderers--a secret until the climax to enhance the mystery and fantasy elements of the story."
Davis and Stanley created four characters to represent the world of fandom. Chairman of the convention committee is Professor Seabrook, a mystery writer who reflects the intelligentsia of the book/fandom world; Cindy, Seabrook's love interest, is a good-looking designer of fantasy fashions; Scotty is a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast who uses his reasoning powers to unravel the more complex clues scattered through the screenplay; and Gary Arlington - named after the real-life owner of a San Francisco comic-book store and a major contributor to the early years of the Underground Comix movement - serves as a guru-like character who symbolizes the great popularity of comic books in America. This foursome set out to unravel the secrets of Malakai's centuries-long existence and enter into his supernatural world in an effort to stop the grizzly murders plaguing the convention.

Two other key character also reflect the fandom world: George Wilson is the host of a local Saturday night series called "Fright Flicks," patterned after the immensely popular Bob Wilkins, who was then hosting "Creature Features" at KTVU in Oakland; and Dr. Carl Unworth is a psychiatrist crusading against comic books and other violent-oriented forms of entertainment who has written the book "Rape of the Young Mind.". (Unworth was patterned after real-life Dr. Frederic Wertham who wrote the infamous 1953 anti-comic book diatribe, "Seduction of the Innocent.")
A strange character seen hanging around the fringes of the convention site is Tobias Ben-Halik, who in the end turns out to be a tragic, heroic figure seeking Malakai's death as revenge against war crimes he committed while serving the Third Reich during World War II.

This bizarre set of characters and the dialogue's many references to horror icons and their movies are what help to make "Nightmare in Blood" so unusually fan-oriented.

Just as bizarre as its characters is the story behind the scenes, which has as many twists and turns as the fanciful plot. Stanley and Davis, after finishing the screenplay, managed to raise only $51,000, which they felt, would still be enough to get them through principal photography, even with an all-union cast and crew. Deals were signed with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET). The main action was filmed in Oakland on Telegraph Avenue at the Fox Theater, a grand movie palace built in 1928 as part of the 20th Century-Fox theater chain. Other locations: The Lincoln Memorial Golf Course in San Francisco, a Fourth Street storefront that was turned into a comic book store for two days by the real Gary Arlington, a Minna Alley warehouse basement that served as a secret laboratory for Malakai and his henchmen, San Francisco General Hospital, and Bob Wilkins' "Creature Feature" set at Channel 2 in Oakland's Jack London Square, where a program-in-progress was created with Malakai interrupting the proceedings to chew out Unworth and Wilson for their attitudes toward horror films. The set was also used for a bloody hatchet murder.

Jerry Walter, a Bay Area-based actor whose credits went back to radio's "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy," was chosen to play Malakai because of his over-the-top boisterous acting style and a booming, rich voice. Jerry, in fact, used many different voices and accents for the actor-vampire. (Years later, Jerry would provide the voices for the Stormtroopers in the original "Star Wars.")

Ray K. Goman, a one-time stand-up comedian at his parents' Goman's Gay Nineties night club in North Beach, was cast as henchmen B.B. Put out of work by the topless movement of the 1960s, Goman had turned to acting jobs in San Francisco and Hollywood. A then-new face in the movies, Hy Pyke, was picked to play his companion, Harris. Pyke had just made "Lemora, the Lady Dracula," and would go on to appear in "Bladerunner." "When we rolled the camera on Ray and Hy standing side by side," recalled Stanley, "the frame just oozed with evil. They were wonderfully diabolical together."
Many actresses were auditioned for the Cindy role, including Suzanne Somers. Recalled Stanley: "Suzanne had just played the girl in the Thunderbird in George Lucas' 'American Graffiti,' but Kenn and I decided she was too much a comedienne and we said no. She would have given the film a greater identity when she later became a star in 'Three's Company,' but I still think we did the right thing for the integrity of the film." Many auditions were held at the office of Ann Brebner, who in the early 1970s handled almost all the major casting when producers came to San Francisco. "Kenn and I couldn't find the actress we wanted, not realizing that she was under our very noses. One day Barrie Youngfellow, a receptionist for Ann, asked if she could audition. Kenn and I were startled, but we told her to go ahead. She changed her hairstyle and make-up and we couldn't believe it was the same woman. She seemed perfect for the role-sweet, sympathetic, and very credible. And credibility always counts in a movie about the incredible." (Youngfellow vindicated their choice by going on to star as Jan Hoffmeyer in the TV sitcom "It's a Living," and she also appeared opposite Mickey Rooney in the Christmas fantasy "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.")
To play the role of Scotty, the Sherlockian detective, Stanley and Davis chose a superb black stage actor, John Cochran, who had first been considered to play private eye Carver Bascombe two years earlier. Drew Eshelman, a tall, lean actor, seemed absolutely perfect for the role of Gary Arlington when he read the lines in a deadpan, ethereal vein, clad in a Christ-like robe. Dan Caldwell, a Marin County stage actor, was chosen to play the erudite Seabrook after he auditioned with beard and pipe.

From the beginning Stanley and Davis had a San Francisco cab driver named Irving Israel in mind for the role of Ben-Halik, a Jew seeking vengeance for the death of his family at the hands of the Nazis. They had seen Israel in several San Francisco stage productions and felt he was perfect for the role of the misunderstood and doomed hero. "Besides," said Stanley, "Irving had a great Jewish accent." The Dr. Unworth role proved more difficult-until Stanley and Davis met Justin Bishop, who carried a sense of authority but also projected arrogance and conceit. "We couldn't resist Justin's malevolent snarl and the way he rolled his eyes," said Davis.

An act of arson against the Fox Theater almost caused the production to shut down. But the crew cleared away the fire debris and filming continued. One afternoon Stanley lost his footing on a narrow staircase and fell several feet into the orchestra pit, and was seen limping around the theater for the next few days. On another occasion, he dropped a half-burnt theater loge on his foot and had to spend part of a day at the emergency ward having a toe lanced open. But he was back on the job the next morning at 8 a.m. "I can still remember standing in the middle of the stage and staring up into the balcony, feeling a sense of malevolence, as if the theater didn't want us to succeed with this movie. I felt that throughout the production. That Fox Theater was one strange place. It definitely had a personality all its own. We even added some lines of dialogue to that effect."

"There were many difficult moments," said Davis, "because in addition to me being director of photography and John being director, we had a thousand details to look after day after day. It wasn't easy, but we got the job done."
The film features many special effects by make-up man Steve Catania, including a severed head, a detached eyeball staring up from a golfing green, a severed throat, body slashes, and "aging" make-up required for the two PR-men villains.

There are several crowd sequences, including one in which Malakai's coffin arrives at the front of the Fox Theater. Standing in the crowd are several members of a "Planet of the Apes" club that had dressed in various ape costumes for the occasion.

Among them was a young teenager named Fred Dekker, who would go on to become a film maker himself, turning out "Night of the Creeps," "The Monster Squad" and "RoboCop 3." Another crowd scene featured many women carrying picket signs protesting the convention for its violence - an event created by Dr. Unworth to support his anti-horror movie campaign. "We got every mother and grandmother we knew to come down that night and chant their dislike for horror movies," recalled Stanley. "My mother kept asking me, 'But what's my motive, what's my motive?'"
A highlight of "Nightmare in Blood" is its opening sequence in which Kerwin Mathews, star of "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad," "Three Worlds of Gulliver" and "Jack the Giant Killer," portrays a swashbuckling hero battling Malakai in a film-within-a-film called "The Zaroff Doom."

"We shot the scenes in some old pre-World War II gun emplacements located just a hundred yards from the toll plaza of the Golden Gate Bridge." Many sword-wielding extras met their "doom" that day, "dying" under the blade of the intrepid Mathews. "We discovered when we were casting the picture that Kerwin had retired from movies, was living in San Francisco and working as an antiques dealer. So we looked him up and he agreed to play Count Zaroff. It was a cameo role and we filmed his scenes in just one day. When Kerwin arrived, he warned me that he was leaving at 4 p.m. no matter what. So we worked as fast as we could to get all his shots in the can. True to his word, at 4 p.m. he changed back into his street clothes and a car pulled up. At the wheel was Kerwin's friend, the actor Mel Ferrer, who had done some swashbuckling himself with Stewart Granger in 'Scaramouche.' He and Kerwin drove off and we never saw them again. But Kerwin sure gave us some much-needed marquee value. And he had agreed to do the whole thing for no money."

The film-making team went through highs and lows after production, raising money to finish the film and finally finding a distributor. Then the company, unsure of how to sell a tongue-in-cheek horror film, backed out at the last minute. It took another year of searching to find a distributor who did believe in the film. It was released into first-run theaters and continued to play nonstop for years, even making the drive-in circuits several times before the prints wore out or were retired.

After the video release in 1985, it seemed to Stanley that it was all over. "Nightmare in Blood," after a 13-year personal "nightmare," had been laid to rest. Retired after a 33-year career at the Chronicle and living in Pacifica, CA, Stanley was utterly surprised to receive a phone call a year and a half ago. "It was from Image Entertainment, one of the major DVD producers in the business, wanting to get 'Nightmare' back into circulation and wanting it to look better than ever before. We were ecstatic. However . . . "

There was now a new problem facing Stanley and Davis The only surviving print of "Nightmare in Blood" was shelved away in the deep vaults of the Library of Congress--and since it had been archived since 1980 "we weren't sure of its quality. We had nightmarish visions of a disintegrating print. But it turned out the print was in excellent condition, no scenes were missing, and Colorlab in Maryland had no problems making a new digital-beta tape in the widescreen process. When I saw it for the first time, it looked exactly as the first release print had looked back in the 1970s. It's incredible what film laboratories can accomplish these days.

"Kenn and I are really pleased that our attempt to make a movie about fandom is still appreciated and coming back into the public conscience. I think many critics misunderstood the film's tongue-in-cheek qualities-they didn't quite get all the in-gags that fans appreciate, and I think the film suffered as a result. But now there's a new generation of DVD watchers out there. In our commentary track, which Kenn and I did with the help of TV personality Dennis Willis at the public access channel in Pacifica, we tried to talk about some of the difficulties of production. About the harsh realities low-budget producers often face. But we also wanted to describe those joyous moments too when suddenly all the chaos around you goes away and some wonderful filmmaking things happen. The truth is, making movies is joy and sorrow mixed into one, but if you believe in your idea and never give up, you can get the job finished. And you can offer something special to the people who love to go to the movies."

Recently, when Stanley and Davis got together to do the commentary track for the DVD, they got to talking about the ghost in the Fox Theater in Oakland. "One night," remembered Stanley, "as we carried equipment into the dressing room area in the theater's basement, I saw a white, cloudy mist drifting away from me, rising toward the ceiling. It vanished when it reached the end of the corridor I was standing in. Maybe, I thought at the time, it was just some dust I stirred up that evaporated away. But . . . as many times as I walked through that area during the five-week shoot, I never again saw a white, cloudy mist, no matter how much dust I stirred up."

Kenn has his ghost story too. One night he slept in the lobby of the theater, his sleeping bag spread out in front of the candy counter. With his ear pressed close to the floor, he heard a door being pushed open in the basement beneath. It was a sliding door controlled by a counterweight system. After the door opened, there was a pause, then the door pulled itself shut. "The next morning when John arrived, I told him the story. 'But Kenn,' he said, 'you were the only person here last night. We locked all the doors, everyone went home, remember?'

"I stared at John for a moment, then asked him, 'Then who the hell was down there pushing open that door last night?' " Neither of them went rushing into the basement to find out. >From Image Entertainment:  Synopsis: The streets of San Francisco run red when a horror convention comes to town, bringing with it a most unusual guest of honor: Malakai, a mysterious cult actor who#s also a real life bloodsucker! With his two henchmen, the reincarnations of bodysnatchers Burke and Hare, the fanged menace perplexes Bay Area police, leaving all hope in the hands of mystery novelist Seabrook, amateur sleuth Scotty, fashion designer Cindy, comic book expert Gary, and Nazi hunter Ben-Halik. The intrepid vampire hunters track the fiend to his secret lair beneath a movie theater, where diabolical experiments have enabled Malakai to tamper with life and death itself! Featuring Kerwin Mathews (7th Voyage of Sinbad) and directed by horror guru John Stanley, this tongue-in-cheek monster mash will have you clutching your armrests in fright! 

Special Features: Audio Commentary with Writer-Director John Stanley and Co-Writer Kenn Davis; Creature Features: Half an hour of vintage John Stanley material, including an interview with Leonard Maltin and a discussion of making Nightmare in Blood; Photo Gallery. Year: 1978 Length: 90 minutes  Rating: Not Rated MSRP: $ 19.99  Release Date: 2/17/2004  Catalog Number: ID1055JODVD  Audio Format: Mono  Screen Format: 2.35:1  Color: Color Region Code: Region 1 Original Languages: English English Dubbed: No