Just a quick recap of the story: Dracula, who is here only able to feed from the blood of virgin girls, is forced to leave his ancestral home in Transylvania (apparantly he's exhausted the supply there) and travel to Italy with his manservant, under the pretence of seeking a 'suitable wife'. They come across a family of supposedly noble stock, whose daughters are not in fact as pure as they might seem to be. This is due to the presence of a hot-headed young farmhand, whose political ideologies have been much influenced by the recent revolution in Russia...
Morrissey's first image in the film is a mischievously existential sequence that immediately works to blur the distinction between the realm of the film and that of the filmmakers. Dracula, a bone white albino, is seen applying black dye to his hair, rouge to his cheeks and ochre to his lips in an effort to appear more robust and more human. The obvious parallel is that of an actor being made up in preparation for a scene; Dracula's 'scene' is the rest of the movie and therefore we do not see this process repeated. Opening with such an introspective shot, one that is entirely outside the narrative and which so successfully marries the worlds before and behind the camera, denotes the artistic sensibility which will lend the film a modernist flavour and throw the hokier aspects of vampire lore into sharp relief. Here Dracula merely has an aversion to sunlight, garlic and crucifixes, rather than crumbling to dust at the sight of them; if outside during the day he only shields his face with his hat, and in his room at the inn he simply takes down the cross on the wall and puts it away in a drawer. It's a good example of how rules of legend as interpreted through iconic cinema (think Bela Lugosi repulsed by a crucifix, or Max Shreck dissolving in the dawn's light) are not binding in any sense, and in any case such constraints on the character would sit badly with the plot of the film. The director's personal touch allows him to express his ideas with more structure and balance, which makes for a more satisfying and coherent picture.
In 'Flesh for Frankenstein', Morrissey used the basic set up of the Frankenstein story, itself heavy with Freudian overtones in the context of Man attempting to create life independently of Woman, to showcase and satirise a gallery of corrupting behaviour and sexual deviancy. Here the contemporary relevance is the political subtext of the Dracula myth. The Count as a wealthy aristocrat is presented as both a literal and metaphorical vampire: he drains the blood of innocents in order to perpetuate his existence, and his social class figuratively leeches off the lower orders for it's own survival. His sickly pallor and physical frailty is both representative of his caste's dying influence and perhaps also a comment upon the debilitating results of long term inbreeding; a sharp contrast to the youthful strength and virility of Joe Dallesandro. The character of the latter is a dedicated communist who despises the Count for being, as he sees him, the wasted product of an archaic and fading tradition of social inequality, and the perception of aristocracy as decrepit and defunct extends to, and is reinforced by, the Italian family upon who's daughters the count has set his sights. Clearly once wealthy and influential they have now fallen on hard times and are under financial strain; the daughters work in the fields and gardens and the house is in need of repair and redecoration which they cannot afford. Hence the Mother's desire to marry one of her children into a moneyed lineage, in spite of such an unattractive groom and her daughters' unsuitability for his requirements, is an act of both base greed and snobbish ambition.
The film also makes great use of the power of human sexuality. One character early in the film remarks, upon hearing of the Count's intention to marry: 'A wife? He doesn't look up to it!' Indeed the key to Dracula's undoing is ultimately sex. He cannot drink the blood of non-virgins, yet is tricked several times into drinking the contaminated blood of the family's daughters, which leads to bouts of copious vomiting. His servant's somewhat erroneous belief that Italy is a good place to find a chaste wife, because of that countries Catholicism, demonstrates his unfortunate reliance on, and faith in, the upholding of old fashioned principles. The girls' unrestrained sexual familiarity with Dallesandro is indicative of their embracing of a more modern and unconcerned attitude to sex, where the crumbling social climate and values of their parent's generation have little bearing. When Dracula reveals that due to his families' 'traditions' he can only marry a virgin, the Marchesa knowingly tries to palm him off with her daughters, whom she knows are experienced, anyway. There is little genuine sense of honour about such duplicity; the motivation is wealth even at the expense of her children's happiness. Morrissey is always quick to savage the supposedly sacred community of the family; in 'Flesh for Frankenstein' it was blighted by incest and depravity, and here the briefly seen relationship between Dracula and his sister (also a vampire) is more touching and heartfelt than the caustic behaviour of the Di Fiore's toward one another.
The film remains to the end a coruscating and biting take on human values. At it's conclusion the enforced tyranny of an autocratic society has symbolically been put to a bloody end and supplanted by another: that of communist oppression. It is not a happy ending, perhaps because Dracula here is a much more pitiable and ambiguous character than generally depicted in other films. He does not communicate a sense of being an evil and vicious monster; he comes across as a weak and highly strung aesthete, delicate, sensitive and refined (the fact that he can only drink the uncontaminated blood of virgins is an extension of his discerning tastes and a genuine reflection of the traditional requirements of well-bred families in matters of marriage). Violence is abhorrent to him, yet ironically it is concomitant with his survival, whereas Dallesandro's character is brutish, self righteous and far more morally dubious (he more or less rapes the youngest daughter so that Dracula cannot now feed from her impure blood).
The key performances here are perfectly realised and genuinely involving. Kier captures the lethargy and malaise of the ailing Count with inimitable panache, although in order to shed the necessary weight for the role he simply didn't eat anything and was therefore actually too weak to move most of the time anyway! Arno Jeurging here plays an authoritative, arrogant and controlling servant who is worlds away from the submissive and degenerate Otto character in 'Flesh for Frankenstein', while Maxime McKendry imparts a very real sense of desperation in her part as a declining aristocrat grasping at straws in a changing economic climate. Dallesandro here seems as out of place as he was in FFF, with a hilariously anachronistic Brooklyn accent despite supposedly being a second-generation servant to the family. You could look at this as the Director articulating his indifference to the conventional importance of verisimilitude, or merely the inclusion of a bankable international star for the purpose of returns at the box office (I suppose it depends on how cynical you're feeling). Whatever, Dallesandro endows his character with the sense of preening and aggressive self-importance that is vital for the film, where the intention is to have no clearly demarcated hero and villain. The girls are all achingly beautiful and shed their clothes at almost every opportunity, while two notable directors, Vittorio De Sica and Roman Polanksi (!) have brief parts as the Merchese and a cunning villager respectively. Jeurging's mother also plays a small role as a customer at the inn.
Gore wise, although the film, as noted, somewhat lacks the unrelenting intensity of FFF's flying entrails and severed heads, it is still not for the squeamish. The protracted scenes of Dracula throwing up unsuitable blood into the bath are pretty gross, as is his lying on the floor to sup at the remains of the youngest daughter's hymen after Dallesandro takes matters into his own hands. The conclusion takes the grotesquery to the heights of blackly comic inevitability, with a mess of severed limbs and a double puncture with a single stake. However, the elegance of the cinematography, despite the low budget, renders these scenes almost as beautiful in their own perverse way as the long establishing shots of the Italian countryside.
This film, like it's predecessor, remains a genuine cult classic, and in my opinion they are both valuable documents of the prevalent artistic attitudes of their day and two of the most important, literate, well composed and intelligent horror films of the last thirty years. Maybe someday Morrissey and Kier may make another. Here's hoping.