Making of Nocturna

Bellydancer Nai Bonet first appeared in America in the 1960s, adorning album covers, making infrequent appearances in films and on television and she also recorded the cheesy novelty song "Jelly Belly" (she filmed a music video of the tune for now-obscure video jukeboxes called Scopitones). As the '70s were ushered in, Bonet decided to set her sights full-time on acting but, unfortunately, she found roles were few and far between. She took small supporting parts in the now-forgotten flicks "Soul Hustler," "The Soul of Nigger Charley," "The Greatest," and she appeared as Sheherazade in the goofy softcore musical sex romp "Fairy Tales." However, Nai yearned to sink her teeth into something bigger.  "I wasn't getting anywhere in pictures," Nai said in a 1978 interview.  "I saw girls no better than I was going ahead. All I got seemed to be invitations to go away for a weekend or to socialize."

She continued, "It seemed like all of the good roles were going to girls who looked like Raquel Welch and I, being dark, couldn't get parts. So I got my own story about a girl who looked like me." Now, as an aside, I feel the overwhelming need to point out that Welch is hardly pale complected -- she's Bolivian! And it was always my understanding that vampires are ghostly pale, not bronzed. But anyway...

Bonet kept a notebook filled with story ideas and began developing one about Dracula's granddaughter.  The story was moronically simple: Dracula's granddaughter, Nocturna, hops into bed with a disco guitarist and then decide she's in love with him, but the Count is against their courtship, so she flees Transylvania with her new beau and heads to New York City. Unsurprisingly, the Count soon arrives in New York too, hoping to drag Nocturna back home, but he doesn’t count on interference from his former girlfriend/Nocturna’s new roomie Jugulia Vein.

Nai pitched the idea to "Fairy Tales" director Harry Hurwitz, who began writing a script.  The next step was finding money to get the movie made.  Bonet set up the production company "Nai Bonet Productions, Ltd." in her Manhattan apartment and went searching for investors.  Halloween producer "Irwin Yablans, a friend of mine," Bonet noted, "liked the story and idea so much he said he would distribute the picture and  invested $200,000.  The money was all very legit.  One man, a good friend of mine, offered to put in some but by then I had all I needed."  Now, according to internet lore, that unnamed man may well be William Callahan, a child actor turned construction businessman who was apparently embezzling funds and had ties to the mob which resulted in his brutal murder in 1981.  Whether all the money came from Yablans or if Callahan invested is anyone's guess, but it does seem a bit suspicious that she felt the need to point out that the money was "legit."  Perhaps it was the money for her next film, "Hoodlums," which came from Callahan... which seems more likely, since an alternate title for that film is "Gangsters."  In any event, she secured the funds from whomever and set out to make her film.

The next step was finding other actors to star in her film, and she had two in mind for the senior roles of Count Dracula and Jugulia Vein: John Carradine and Yvonne DeCarlo. So she started asking around and eventually got the phone numbers of their agents... and perhaps not so coincidentally, they had the same agent. Carradine first donned a cape and fangs in the 1944 classic "House of Frankenstein," and he seemed to dust them off every few years to reprise his Dracula role in various low budget dreck.  For his role in "Nocturna," Carradine later recalled, "Historically I must be the first vampire to remove my fangs, dental plate and all!"  DeCarlo had first gained notoriety in the b-movie gem "Salome, Where She Danced" in 1945 and seemed to have a promising career... until she took the role of a vampire named Lily Munster on television in 1964. As a result, by the 70s she found the only work she could get was starring in b to z grade horror movies.  In 1977 both actors were at a low point in their careers, starring together in "Satan's Cheerleaders" (though they didn't share any screen time) so it's little wonder that they both accepted the roles in "Nocturna." However, Bonet once noted, "I had to haggle over the salaries,"  and her time with the stars was brief; as they each only worked a week on the film.

Rounding out the cast was Antony Hamilton (from the '80s "Mission: Impossible" remake) as Nocturna's boyfriend, Bonet's "Fairy Tales" costar Sy Richardson as a pimpish blood-pusher, creepy German personality Brother Theodore ("The 'burbs") as Dracula’s henchman, and a ton of unknowns and extras, many of whom never made another film -- though according to press information, many of the extras from the Starship Disco sequence had previously appeared in "Saturday Night Fever."

"By July we were in production," Bonet said.  Juggling acting and producing duties proved a lot for the starlet to bear.   "I never worried about my own acting. I was too busy worrying about the little problems. "Will the sandwiches be on time? What about the drinks? What about the weather? My sister was having troubles. I told her to calm down. I said. 'I have enough problems, I don't need your tears!"'

However, she seemed to have had a good time with her costars.  "Yvonne De Carlo was magnificent. Carradine brought his own Dracula outfit, a costume cape that was 50 years old and yellow with age."  Okay, so Nai's math was a little off.  The costume was actually around 35 years old.  "I had a rented limousine to take them around town," she continued. "One night at Sardi's, Yvonne was introducing me to everybody I knew already. The little autograph fans saw us and Yvonne said, 'This is my producer.' The kids were so surprised that I was a producer. So was I!"  Might be a good reason for the surprise... if she was in costume, the 'kids' could have easily mistaken her for one of New York City's many prostitutes.  Tacky, I realize, but true.  Of Bonet, DeCarlo boasted, "She's a clever little girl, this picture should be great."

"I shared a coffin with Carradine, who looked like a walking cadaver," DeCarlo said.  "Yvonne De Carlo and I joked around that we were having what can only be described as coffin sex," Carradine later recalled.  DeCarlo continued, "We could both get in the coffin, that's how thin he was.  One day he bad we worried about him. We found out he'd been up all night singing at the Backstage Club!"  But it wasn't just Carradine who was indulging in fun and games.  "One night I had the coffin all to myself," DeCarlo continued, "they opened it and they were celebrating my birthday.  I'm three and a half, don't bother looking it up," she joked.  Actually, it was her 56th birthday being celebrated on that September evening. 

"I love policemen, all policemen," De Carlo continued.  "One night on 42nd Street there were two, then four, then six, then ten policemen protecting me!" Bonet also found herself liking police officers while shooting a memorable sequence.  Clad in a red gown and cape and wired with a microphone, a cameraman hid in a car and followed her as she strolled through Times Square interacting with various locals.  What you don't see in the film is what ultimately happened -- Nai created such a spectacle that a riotous crowd swelled around her.  "The cops had to rescue me!" she exclaimed.

 The location that doubled for Dracula's castle was actually a massive Gothic church (one place vampires usually aren't admitted). Yep, for her lengthy bathing scene, Nai got naked and soapy before rolling cameras in an upstairs room of the church -- and the crew was careful not to let the clergy know what was going on! During her impromptu Times Square sequence, no permits were obtained, instead they wired Bonet with a mic and let her roam the streets while an undercover cameraman in a car captured the footage.

In addition to shooting in New York City, all of the music also originated in New York. Bonet turned to record producers Reid Whitelaw & Norman Bergen to compose the music and lyrics for all of the songs. Whitelaw and Bergen had already written numerous songs for the NYC disco band Moment of Truth, who appeared as themselves in the film (the band had released one album and split soon after "Nocturna").

The composers got in touch with disco diva Gloria Gaynor's manager (and soon to be husband) Linwood Simon and got him to convince her to sing the song's main theme, "Love is Just a Heartbeat Away." "I thought "Love Is Just A Heartbeat Away" was a corny title to begin with," Gaynor said in 2008, "and the arrangement of the the original was already badly dated when I did it. And the lyrics were dreadful, I would never in real life present words like that to anyone. In fact I only agreed to sing it out of courtesy to my then manager who also happened to be my husband."

Whitelaw and Bergen also got Vicki Sue Robinson to turn the beat around with a song called "Nighttime Fantasy" in which she faked an orgasm. Or maybe she didn't fake it; I can't say for certain cuz I wasn't there. "I have always been proud of the music and recordings, especially the Vicki Sue Robinson track," Bergen revealed decades later.  The song wound up being Robinson's last legitimate club hit and led to a supporting acting role in Bonet's next film, "Hoodlums."  And singing the song's cheeseball love song was Jay Siegel, the soprano who was part of The Tokens' when they recorded the 1961 classic "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." When all was said and done, Bonet forked over nearly half of the film's funds to the musicians.

The movie was filmed in late '78 and released by Compass International as a follow-up to "Halloween" in early '79.  The movie barely blipped on theatre screens before being pushed to the bottom of a double-bill with the gritty hooker exploitation drama "Fyre." Unsurprisingly, both films quickly fell into oblivion.  Interestingly, "Nocturna" was released a month earlier than another NYC disco-vampire-comedy which was pretty well-known: "Love at First Bite."

"Nocturna" was received with dismal reviews by the very few critics who saw it -- though it did get a nice plug in the very first issue of Fangoria Magazine (note that I said "plug" and not "review"). In the 1960s, Bonet turned down offers to appear in Playboy magazine, but she took it all off for the April 1979 issue of "Gallery" to promote her vampire flick.

Bonet planned on TV showings after the film's theatrical run, but it doesn't appear the movie ever even played on cable.  Biggest problem is the film runs a scant 78 minutes and, at that time, films running on network TV had to be 100 minutes long (the movie would probably be closer to 65 minutes once the network censors cut out all of the objectionable material!).  In 1982 Media Home Entertainment released the movie as a rental-only video with a hefty price tag over $100. The quality of this tape is fairly abysmal -- the sound is muffled, the darks are way too dark, it's overtly grainy, there's cigarette burns, visible splices and reel changes and it's been "formatted to fit your TV."  Unfortunately, this would be the film's only official video release in the USA, and releases elsewhere in the world were as sparse and have been out of print just as long.  Even more unfortunate, it's difficult to obtain a worn copy of the crummy tape for less than $80.  The movie is now owned by Trancas International Films, and it's one of few in their Compass International Library that's yet to be released on DVD.

Bonet followed up "Nocturna" with one more vehicle for herself, an even more obscure crime drama called "Hoodlums," which retained Vicki Sue Robinson as singer and costar. "Hoodlums" got a minuscule theatrical release before it was dumped on VHS and forgotten, but there's virtually no information about the movie anywhere. After "Hoodlums," Nai retired. According to imdb, she eventually moved to Medjugorje and opened a religious goods store, but in reality she eventually gave up her acting career and continues to reside in The Big Apple.