In 1948, French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut, which became “outsider art” in 1972 when critic Roger Cardinal imported it to English. Initially, it referred to art created outside of a recognized art school or defined philosophy (back when every art movement felt the need to publish a manifesto). It was soon applied to any work created beyond the boundaries of mainstream culture — art created by an inmate in an insane asylum, for example. This is not the same as an established art movement that consciously seeks to do something “outside the mainstream.” An artist cannot rationally decide to make art brut. As Dubuffet describes, art brut cannot be made by anyone who functions as part of regular society — even regular art society — and so this form of fierce and feverish creation remains the purview of madmen, hermits, and backwoods hillbillies who make sculptures out of cat skins, metal drums, and jagged shards of glass.
If a creator of outsider art was in possession of a movie camera, a box of plastic Dracula fangs and a dozen rubber monster masks, the film that would come from that mind would look like Shaitani Dracula, a sublimely weird film from no-budget horror maestro Harinam Singh. Singh writes, produces, directs, and often stars in his own films, most of which are merely slapdash and borderline incompetent. But Shaitani Dracula is something else. His zenith. The culmination of a life spent in a threadbare industry with scant resources and constant attacks from moral guardians. It is a film so far beyond the pale of anything we can recognize as a movie that one can hardly call it a movie. An experience, perhaps. Enlightenment. When one attempts to explain Shaitani Dracula, one realizes quickly the futility of such an endeavor. It is convenient to fall back on the narration that accompanies the trailer for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973), a movie of similarly profound strangeness:
“Nothing in your education or experience can have prepared you for this film…a film completely outside the tradition of motion picture art. It is outside the tradition of modern theater…a film outside the tradition of criticism and review.”
That Shaitani Dracula ever saw the light of day is a testament to the fact that strange and wonderful things still happen in this modern world. The whole thing has the feel of a movie put together by a child who has dumped out a box of monster toys and is furiously making up a story about them. Even judged against the standards of cut-rate Indian horror cinema from outside the Bollywood mainstream — a genre that has never valued competence or coherence in its headlong rush toward another scene of a pizza-faced ghoul or a woman taking a shower while wearing cycling shorts — Shaitani Dracula stands out as something wholly more…advanced. To watch it is an experience not unlike the final bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Belloq alternates between screaming in abject terror and rapturously yelling, “It’s beautiful!” right before his head explodes.
The film opens with an attack, or possibly a lovemaking scene, involving a woman and either a monster or a man. It’s hard to tell because almost every scene in Shaitani Dracula is murky and out-of-focus. It doesn’t matter, because neither the woman nor the guy/monster will show up again. Then, someone yells “Dracula!!!!” over and over for a while, the James Bond theme plays, the film cuts to the requisite lightning bolt that opens all Indian horror films, and then we meet Dracula (Harinam Singh) in his living room. He is a beefy guy with a mustache and one of those Outback Jack hats, sitting in a wicker chair surrounded by vampire ladies in bras and mini skirts. When Dracula isn’t busy caressing his scantily-clad vampire girls or making them stand under sprinklers, he works on his plan for world conquest, which involves sending his vampire brides out to transform the women of the world into lady Draculas, so that Dracula himself can shout his own name more frequently.
Dracula’s minions include a host of terrifying creatures. There are a few different vampire girls, the most active one being the woman in a white bra and who sometimes has styrofoam wings strapped to her when the prop guy remembers. Her ability to fly is realized by having the actress stand on a rolling chair while being filmed from a low angle. She spends most of her time teetering back and forth, trying to keep her balance while waving her arms menacingly and baring her plastic Dracula fangs. Then there’s the woman in the black “spider-girl” body stocking and a ghoulish rubber mask. She spends the movie stepping out from behind trees and striking scary poses. This is what most of the ghouls do, actually. In fact, it’s pretty much what every character does. Shaitani Dracula is a movie composed mostly of people standing in front of something for a few seconds before the camera cuts to a shot of someone else — or the same person — standing in front of something else — or the same thing. There’s also a vampire lady in a red mini-skirt who dances under a sprinkler and a few “house vampires,” whose main job is to slink around while Dracula stands in front of the Venetian blinds and makes faces.
Dracula has more at his disposal than vampire girls in their underwear, though. There’s a guy in a red fright mask and a fedora, looking like one of those monsters that got created because someone is on their way to a costume party without a costume, so they have to make do with whatever’s left over at the drug store on Halloween night. There’s the wolfman, wearing one of those hairy gorilla suits, only with a werewolf mask that keeps falling off whenever he attacks someone. There’s also a couple of guys who show up but don’t do anything, such as the caveman in a polo shirt and something I can only assume is some manner of prehistoric bear.
And there’s the skeleton guy, which is just some dude in a baggy black bodystocking with bones painted on it. The best thing about him isn’t the laziness of the costume or the fact that he wanders in from nowhere and serves no purpose. No, it’s that the actor playing him walks with a macho strut that tells you he knows he’s the baddest motherfucker to ever put on a potato sack painted with bones.
The target for all these monsters wandering around in the woods is a group of campers who are remarkably dedicated to their camping trip. You’d think after the first vampire girl rolled after them, or after the first skeleton went a-swaggerin’ like George Jefferson across the lawn, they’d pack up and head back home. But you just don’t love camping the way these kids do. It’s difficult to tell exactly how many campers there are, as the film inserts many shots of people never seen before and who will never be seen again, or it features a scene of someone getting killed only to have them reappear minutes later. People go to sleep in one scene only to show up wandering around in the woods a few seconds later. Sheetal is the main character, or as main a character as a film this distracted can manage. She spends most of the movie in a pair of zebra print hot pants, standing or walking in front of a clump of trees. Her friends include: Deepa, who serves no function other than to look baffled in a few shots (she must be a surrogate for the audience); Rishma, who gets chased by Dracula and then vanishes from the rest of the movie; and a bunch of guys who don’t really do much other than occasionally knock off the wolfman’s mask. There’s also a couple of chubby old fellows walking around in the woods, seemingly for days on end, getting threatened here and there by ghoul ladies.
The first hour of this film is an assembly of the same scenes over and over. Dracula makes faces in his den. Vampire girls menace someone. Sheetal stands in front of a clump of trees. The red face guy in the fedora walks toward the camera. Vampire girl. Sheetal in front of those trees. Vampire gi…whoa! What’s with that red-lit caveman? The campers gather around. The skeleton guy struts across the screen. A monster we’ll only see for these two seconds and never again. On and on it goes. But it’s not exactly the same scenes. Outfits and hairstyles change from one shot to the next. People wander off, get attacked by a monster, then reappear as if nothing happened.
Then comes the movie’s one and only musical number, which is nothing but Sheetal walking in front of those fucking trees again, only this time with a small radio. While a song plays, we get a four-minute recap of everything that’s happened up until now, plus some scenes from other movies thrown in for good measure, and what the hell — might as well throw in a few scenes that haven’t happened yet. Is Harinam Singh toying with the concept of linear time and logical progression? Is it a commentary on the repetitive nature of “stalked in the woods” horror films? Or did he just find a box of Halloween costumes and think, “Shootin’ a movie tonight!”
The final half-hour finds plenty of time to show that same footage of the vampire girl on the rolling chair, but it also moves things forward. Dracula becomes obsessed with Sheetal, which causes some friction between him and his vampire brides. The monster crew attacks the campers, which results in ten minutes of everyone running back and forth while monsters clutch at them. Dracula captures Sheetal, only to let her escape and return in a red leather halter top and hot pants, armed with a cross and ready to take Dracula down before he can make us watch any more footage of people wandering across the screen while a guy in a wolf mask follows slowly behind them.
Something about the weakness of vampires in the face of a crucifix is lost in the translation, however. Rather than rely on the cross to dissolve or frighten the vampires, Sheetal just uses it to bludgeon the shit out of them. Most of the fighting is done by having someone slowly and gently extend their arm and press their fist against an opponent’s face, which causes the opponent to react in…well, they don’t really react, but Singh dubs in some pretty mighty sound effects for the punches. It was kind of Harinam Singh to give us one girl-on-girl fight between combatants in tiny shorts and/or mini-skirts (he’s not completely talentless), but then he goes and immediately follows that up with a second one!
There are multiple scenes (actually, it’s possible it’s the same scene played over a few times) where Sheetal is standing around, waiting for her cue, nods, and then begins the action. You can see her holding a smoldering piece of paper from time to time, which she throws to the ground when other actors enter the scene. This isn’t some strange ritual; it’s Sheetal getting caught on camera throwing down the prop that is supposed to generate the fog. Most of the monsters are realized by putting a rubber Halloween mask on an actor. They usually put the mask on with no effort to coordinate the rest of the outfit, which is why you get great monsters like “ werewolf girl in a bra” and “fedora zombie.” What this movie lacks in quality, however, it certainly makes up for in quantity. Singh crams so many monsters into the movie that he can’t even find a plot for them all. Thus, many of them show up for one shot and then disappear, leaving us to ponder for the rest of our lives, “What was up with that guy wearing the hairy monster mask and a polo shirt?” And what the hell was up with the scene where the people are off in the distance and there’s an out-of-focus goose bobbing its head into the foreground? What sort of insane art is this???
I am reminded once again of Jodorowsky, of the koan-like narration that appears at the beginning of El Topo (1970): “The mole is an animal that digs passages searching for the sun. Sometimes he reaches the surface. When he looks at the sun he goes blind.”
Harinam Singh is a guy with a movie camera and some local acquaintances, going out into the woods to make a horror movie, with boundless passion and a profound disregard for how films are made. Even within the community of Indian micro-budget horror directors — your Kanti Shah’s, your Kishan Shah’s, your Baby’s (yes, his name is Baby) — and even the rest of Singh’s own filmography, Shaitani Dracula stands apart from and outside of the expected. If Singh falls short of the standard set by Sam Raimi with 1981’s The Evil Dead (one of the most influential horror films in India), we can at least see in him the likes of William Grefe, Doris Wishman, and Larry Buchanan. Each of these people made films outside of the Hollywood machine, and most of the time, the movies they made were terrible, but terrible in that special way where incompetence meets weirdness to create something magical and worth trying to comprehend, even if in the end such comprehension proves beyond the limits of the human mind. Singh’s wandering, aimless direction and tendency to edit together shots with no meaning is no different than Doris Wishman’s tendency to let her camera drift away from the actors and settle on a random lamp or table leg — and both Wishman and Singh seem to share a lack of ability to focus the camera that borders on an almost pathological aversion to shooting a clear frame of film.
One also can assume that Singh possessed at least a passing familiarity with the horror films of Italy and France from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The primary evidence for this familiarity would be that at least one version of the advertising for Shaitani Dracula steals artwork from Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981). Singh’s work is similar, in a cruder way, to the surreal vampire films of French director Jean Rollin. Rollin’s films were shot in much the same way one assumes Shaitani Dracula was shot: with non-professional actors, non-professional crew, minimal equipment, and whatever locations and costumes could be scrounged without having to pay for them. And just as I assume Singh had, at best, a concept scrawled down on the receipt for a take-out dinner, Rollin rarely worked with a script, preferring instead to make things up as he went. One gets the feeling that, had he been in another time and place, Singh would have been right at home directing trashy, no-budget horror films for an outfit like Eurocine. The world was denied something very, very special the day “Harinam Singh’s Zombie Lake” didn’t get made.
But if there is one, true kindred spirit of Harinam Singh, it is Texan Harold P. Warren, creator of Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966). Both Manos and Shaitani Dracula are about a group of innocents preyed upon by sinister forces in the middle of nowhere. Both films feature a mysterious master with a harem of dissatisfied wives who inevitably collapse into a catfight. Both the Master and Dracula have vague aspirations toward power but operate on a laughably small scale (reflections of each film’s director, perhaps). Both films are laden with missed cues, awkward pauses, and nightmare logic. If Manos’ famed Torgo hungers for a companion, perhaps the vampire girl with the polystyrene wings is the woman for him.
Film critic Pauline Kael sums up why films like Shaitani Dracula hold such appeal. We like films like this, she posits, because we are so educated in the tropes and cliches of “good” filmmaking that “good” filmmaking becomes tedious and predictable. But cult films are the places you can go and be taken by surprise, see something outside of the expected. We watch these films for the thrill of discovery, for the joy of witnessing something that would not be done in any other film, by any more talented a filmmaker. Cult films are where true vision — and madness — find free reign, unfettered by industry and commercial training. They are appealing because they are so unlike what we expect from a movie.
Watching Shaitani Dracula is an experience that can’t be described to anyone who hasn’t done it themselves. And once you have done it, you don’t need to have it described to you. In the hands of someone who knew what the hell they were doing, Shaitani Dracula would never achieve the air of unsettling strangeness that makes it so entrancing. The out-of-focus camera work, the terrible editing, the silent scenes of people standing around waiting for their queues…these things never would have happened with a real editor on the crew, and Shaitani Dracula would have been worse off because of it.
But it’s not enough to be incompetent. Anyone can be incompetent. Incompetence on its own usually translates into tedium. What Harinam Singh had, and what Hal Warren and Ed Wood, Jr. had, was a perfect storm of incompetence, crackpot vision, and steadfast inability to recognize one’s limits, combining to create something so daft yet so earnest that it becomes something truly special. By lucky happenstance, incompetence elevates the films to a transcendental plane of existence, a sort of out-of-its-mind experience jaded filmgoers spend years looking for.
And like the mole, when we finally see it, we are blinded by its brilliance.