40 Years Ago: Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson Release ‘Son of Dracula’
Two of the biggest rock stars of the ’70s filming a comedy inspired by the legend of Dracula.
What could go wrong?
Quite a bit, as it turned out. But on paper, having Harry Nilsson team up with Ringo Starr for ‘Son of Dracula’ must have looked like a great idea — not only because Starr was a former Beatle and Nilsson was riding high on the success of his hit ‘Nilsson Schmilsson’ and ‘Son of Schmilsson’ LPs, but also because both men had prior experience in film; Nilsson had earlier scored with the animated adaptation of his ‘The Point!’ album, while Starr had appeared in a handful of movies and directed the T. Rex concert documentary ‘Born to Boogie.’
Alas, even if the screenplay (penned by actress Jennifer Jayne, writing as Jay Fairbank) had been Oscar-worthy stuff, it might not have mattered much; even if Nilsson and Starr were both avid film fans, they were still moonlighting musicians, and they happened to be embarking on this project during a time in which both of them were becoming increasingly well-known for their extracurricular activities.
Creative discipline, in other words, was in short supply — and ‘Son of Dracula’ needed plenty, not least because of its spoofy shambles of a story, in which Dracula’s son Count Downe (Nilsson) is summoned back home by Merlin (Starr) to assume the family throne after his father is murdered, but turns his back on his birthright after falling in love with a human woman (Suzanna Leigh) and reaches out to old family nemesis Van Helsing (Dennis Price) to lift his vampiric curse.
“We had this script, Drac takes the cure, marries the girl and goes off into the sunlight — and it was the only movie we wanted to make,” Starr later told Q. “I called Harry because he was a blonde bombshell and we had his teeth fixed, which his mother was always thankful for. We had a lot of fun. There’s a lot of musicians in it — John Bonham, Keith Moon, Peter Frampton.”
Sadly, that fun failed to translate to the screen, to such an extent that even with Starr and Nilsson’s names attached — and a soundtrack including a new Nilsson song, ‘Daybreak,’ that later went on to become a Top 40 hit — ‘Son of Dracula’ took years to find a distributor, languishing on the Apple shelf until April of 1974. And even when it finally arrived in theaters, almost nobody saw it.
“We had the premiere in Atlanta, the first movie since ‘Gone With the Wind’ to open there, and we had 12,000 kids screaming, we had bands … but we left town the next day, and so did everyone else,” Starr told Q. “In America, the movie only played in towns that had one cinema, because if it had two, no matter what was on down the road, they’d all go there! It’s a bit of a shambles now — we went into a studio with Graham Chapman and re-voiced a lot of it, so it makes even less sense now.”
All of which helps explain why, even in a home video market where cult films regularly see release, ‘Son of Dracula’ has stubbornly stayed off store shelves in the decades since its brief run through theaters. Although bootleg copies have periodically surfaced — and you can watch it on YouTube, as evidenced by the embedded video at the top of this post — it’s destined to remain a footnote in Nilsson and Starr’s careers. Not that its obscurity ever really seemed to bother either of them; as Starr was once quoted as saying, “It is not the best film ever made, but I’ve seen worse.”