Homegrown Horror: 1978's Nightmare in Blood Unleashes a Vampire on San Francisco
Before he replaced Bob Wilkins as the host of Creature Features in 1979, San Francisco Chronicle writer John Stanley made a horror movie called Nightmare in Blood. He was one of hundreds of people who tried their hand at making a low-budget horror movie in the 1970s, and like most of those movies, the end product isn't very good. Heck, Stanley himself has written at some length on his website and elsewhere about the miserable and ultimately disappointing experience of making and living with Nightmare in Blood.
For all its faults, the finished product is not without its charms, especially because he shot it in San Francisco and Oakland, and there's often no better time capsule than a low-budget movie. Stanley and his co-scenarist Kenn Davis were also writing a love letter to the genre fans in the 1970s, the horror / sci-fi / fantasy enthusiasts who weren't nearly as mainstream then as they are now. Like everything else in the movie, the homage doesn't quite click, but it was a noble if misguided effort.
The basic plot of this oddly overwritten film is that the guest of honor at the San Francisco Horror Convention, a movie star named Malakai who mostly plays vampires, is a real vampire. What a twist! And only the fans can stop him. Unfortunately, Nightmare in Blood doesn't quite presage the Scream / Galaxy Quest genre of "young fans use their knowledge of genre tropes to save the day," because the hero fans in this case are boring grown-ups who are by and large more into mystery stories.
It's hard not to wish the real heroes are the kids waiting for Malakai's arrival outside of Oakland's Fox Theater (played by San Francisco's defunct Avenue Theater in certain long shots). Because it's the mid-1970s, many of them are wearing Planet of the Apes masks.
While the presence of so many fans of a science fiction franchise awaiting the arrival of a horror star from horror movies is arguably crossing the streams, particularly by the standards of 1970s fandoms, it's also a reality of low-budget filmmaking: For crowd scenes, you use who shows up, and it's better to have the screen filled with the local Planet of the Apes fan club than to have nobody on the screen at all.
According to Stanley, the leader of said fan club was a young man named Fred Dekker -- who, perhaps not coincidentally, went on to direct a movie called The Monster Squad about a group of teenage horror fans who fight monsters, including (but not limited to) a vampire. In 2007, I attended a wedding at Dekker's parents' house, and I spent much of the day admiring the framed posters of Dekker's The Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps in the garage. I felt like I was among cult movie royalty, or at least in the home of the parents thereof.
Speaking of cult movie royalty, original Creature Features host Bob Wilkins makes a cameo as an impassive, cigar-smoking bystander at an anti-horror protest outside the theater.
And speaking of both Creature Features and anti-horror protests, a scene takes place on the actual Features set. A horror host who makes you desperately miss Bob Wilkins moderates a debate between a tastefully graying mystery writer -- one of the heroes of the film, for better or worse -- and an anti-horror movie crusader modeled after 1950s anti-comic book crusader Fredric Wertham.
Speaking of comic books -- damn, I am on a roll at speaking of things! -- the real-life San Francisco Comic Book Store at 23rd and Valencia and its proprietor Gary Arlington are recreated in a storefront on 4th St., with actor Drew Eshelman playing the totally make-believe character of "Gary Arlington." The not-make-believe Gary Arlington supplied the set with the comics and accoutrement, and I'd like to think he got a kick out of Eshelman's entertainingly hippie-dippy portrayal of him.
When Eshelman looks into the camera, it's probably because he's waiting for director John Stanley to yell "cut," and when that doesn't happen Eshelman continues right on with the scene. My guess is that Stanley doesn't do so because he's waiting at stage right to play his cameo as "Comic Book Store Patron Who Can't Get Anybody's Attention." And with that, Nightmare in Blood becomes the only movie to feature cameos by both hosts of Creature Features. (To some of us, that's significant.)