Friday, December 27, 2019

Short Take: Grey Gardens

(1975) Directed by Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Muffie Meyer: Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale, Edith Beale, Brooks Hyers, Jack Helmuth, Lois Wright; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“I think that the film is kind of a Rorschach test, where it taps on the various abilities and disabilities of half of the audience – the ability to accept unconventionality, for example. Not everybody has that. But if you have it, then you’re more likely to very strongly connect with the film, and if you have a low tolerance for people who are different, then you might get embarrassed for these women…” – Albert Maysles (from 2001 Criterion DVD commentary)

A good documentary can transport you to a different place, providing an unprecedented glimpse into worlds we seldom see. Some provide journeys to exotic locations, while others delve into the superficially mundane, uncovering hidden surprises. Grey Gardens immerses us in the daily life of two eccentric individuals who originated from a position of great wealth and influence, and now exist in the tattered remains of their past glory.

The film opens with a brief primer (through a montage of newspaper articles) on the East Hampton, New York Beale estate, known popularly as Grey Gardens. The residents, elderly Edith Bouvier Beale (Jacqueline Onassis’ aunt) and her middle-aged daughter Edie (“Little Edie”), were nearly evicted, due to Grey Gardens’ advanced squalor. Filmmakers David and Albert Maysles set their sights on the two women, who enjoy a symbiotic, albeit occasionally adversarial relationship. The former socialites occupy only a couple of spots in their dilapidated 28-room mansion, along with a menagerie of cats and woodland creatures that pop in and out. The once-elegant home is an island, adrift in a sea of dense, overgrown foliage. Shots pan around to reveal the neighbors’ pristine homes, with their manicured grounds.

The filmmakers underscore the peculiar relationship between mother and daughter, and their push-pull power dynamic. Little Edie is full of contrasts and contradictions, at once yearning to break free from Grey Gardens, yet loyal to her domineering mother. She expresses a lifetime of regret and bitterness over dreams that weren’t followed, but seems content to live in a state of arrested development (In a moment of self-reflection, she observes, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Do you know what I mean? Awful difficult.”). At times, she regresses to an earlier age, reacting to her mother’s frequent barbs like a petulant child, instead of a 56-year-old woman. In one of the most memorable scenes, Little Edie dances (in a moment she staged herself), in one of her many scarf ensembles,* with a small American flag, demonstrating a level of youthful exuberance that belies her age. She lives in a world of endless beauty pageants, debutante balls, and still fashions herself as the most eligible bachelorette in East Hampton (“I see myself as a young girl.”). “Big” Edith has a similar moment in the spotlight in an earlier scene, when she sings “Tea for Two,” accompanied by her recording from several decades past.

*Fun Fact: According to co-director/co-editor Ellen Hovdie, Little Edie always appeared in a head scarf, with a new ensemble every day. Much to their chagrin, the filmmakers never learned if she was hiding something, or just wanted to make a fashion statement.

Because this isn’t a success story, but rather a study of former glory gone to seed, it’s easy to get the impression that Grey Gardens would be a depressing viewing experience. The movie received a mixed reception at the time of its release, with some accusing the Maysles of exploiting the Beales. However, as the commentary by Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer attests, Edith and Little Edie were quite self-aware of their image, and complicit in how they chose to be portrayed. The film’s critics seemed to miss the point. Grey Gardens doesn’t ask us to condone the Beales’ lifestyle, only to see things from a different (hopefully sympathetic) point of view. Despite a mixed reception during its initial release, Grey Gardens captured the imagination of others over the years, with midnight screenings, a Broadway musical, and a TV movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as the elder and junior Beale, respectively. At its core, the film is a celebration of two people pursuing life on their own terms. Whether you love them or hate them, or are somewhere in between, their story is difficult to forget.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Dreams with Sharp Teeth

(2008) Written and directed by Erik Nelson; Starring: Harlan Ellison, Robin Williams, Neil Gaiman, Carol Cooper, Ronald D. Moore, Carol Cooper, Dan Simmons, Josh Olson, Susan Anne Toth; Available on DVD

Rating: ***½ 

“When you’ve been made an outsider, you are always angry. You respond to it in a lot of different ways: A lot of people get surly, a lot of people get mean, some people turn into serial killers. I got so smart that I could just kill ‘em with logic or their own mouths.” – Harlan Ellison

Even if you’ve never read a story from the late great author Harlan Ellison, you’ve probably experienced his impact on film and television. He left an indelible mark on genre television, having penned some of the greatest episodes of the 1960s: “The City on the Edge of Forever” for Star Trek, and “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “Soldier” for The Outer Limits. His novella “A Boy and His Dog” was adapted for the excellent 1975 movie. He also made numerous talk show appearances, where his candor and venomous wit was on display. In his documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, Erik Nelson presents an unsentimental but oddly affectionate profile of Ellison and his career.

The film opens with Ellison’s friend and admirer, Robin Williams, doing a fact check with the writer about some of his more infamous exploits. Ellison confirmed that he once mailed a dead gopher to a publishing house, attacked an ABC TV executive,* drove a truck with nitroglycerine as the cargo, and claims to have had sex with 500 women (Ellison corrected it to 700). On the other hand, he vehemently denied throwing a fan down an elevator shaft. Aside from these hyperbolic feats, his litany of exploits (real and imaginary) illustrates how much Harlan Ellison the personality is synonymous with Harlan Ellison the writer.

* Interesting Fact: Ellison recounted how he assaulted an ABC TV executive for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in producer Irwin Allen’s office. In a moment of anger, Ellison threw a punch, causing the object of his ire to fall backward. This action in turn caused the Seaview submarine model to fall off the wall and onto the hapless executive, fracturing his pelvis.

It can be notoriously difficult for a movie to adequately convey what makes an artist or writer’s work great. Nelson does his best, featuring interviews with friends and admirers (including Neil Gaiman, Josh Olson, and others), but describing Ellison is a bit like the proverb of the blind men and the elephant – we learn about the parts, without getting a clear picture of the whole. As a result, it’s not too surprising that the best composite of Ellison is from the author himself. You could set the camera down anywhere, step away, and let Harlan Ellison do his thing, which is essentially what you see Nelson do. We get a taste for his inimitable prose style as he reads excerpts from some of his most popular stories and essays, such as his animated recital of one of his most famous short stories, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman."

Ellison traces his childhood days growing up in a small town in Ohio, where he was mercilessly bullied and beaten up by classmates on a regular basis.* In one particularly revelatory scene, he confides how he couldn’t stand being made fun of. It’s easy to connect the dots, to see how his formative years shaped the rest of his life, and his interactions (positive and negative) with all who crossed his path. At its core, Dreams with Sharp Teeth is a profile of a man with strong convictions who’s burned many bridges along the way and would gladly burn them again, if given the chance. As the film argues, however, his irritation isn’t without purpose. He’s fiercely passionate about his craft,** and can’t abide not being adequately compensated for his work. He’s perpetually irked at everything, ready to zero in on his targets like a smart bomb. Some of the objects/individuals he mercilessly skewers include: companies that want something for nothing, the willfully illiterate, television, fans and fandom in general, ignorance and individuals who believe they have a right to an opinion (“I've got news for you, schmuck! You’re entitled to your informed opinion.”).

* Fun Fact #1: Ellison got his revenge over the years by incorporating the names of his childhood bullies in stories.

** Fun Fact #2: A quote on his trusty Olympia typewriter (he keeps several spares in a nook in his home) by musician P.J. Proby, states: “I am an artist, and should be exempt from shit.”

If there’s one quibble with Dreams with Sharp Teeth, it’s that the documentary lapses a little too much into unchecked adoration of its subject, leaving the profile of Ellison a trifle one-sided. Although we hear from his wife Susan (married until his death in 2018), we never hear from any of his four ex-wives or those who were on the receiving end of his verbal (and sometimes) physical assaults.* The film also discusses how he presided over writers workshops, where he alternately championed writers he deemed to have promise, and discouraged those whose writing didn’t meet his standards. This begs the question, what now famous writers did he discourage? It would have been interesting to hear from some of them as well. To some, being rejected by Ellison might have been a dubious (if not devastating) badge of honor (or shame, depending on your point of view).

* Fun Fact #3: In one scene, he describes an incident at a convention, when he purposely urinated on an over-eager fan’s shoe, when asked a question in the restroom.

Dreams with Sharp Teeth is a complex, multi-faceted (albeit flawed) portrait of a precocious boy with a big mouth who never quite grew up. He’s a giant in his field who could have soared to even loftier heights, if not for his irascible demeanor and uncompromising ideals. But if Ellison comes off as curmudgeonly and acerbic, he would probably be the first to agree, and say that he wouldn’t have it any other way. His faults arguably made him the great writer he was, fearless, fiercely unapologetic and endlessly inventive. There has never been anyone quite like Harlan Ellison before, and we may never see his like again.  

Sunday, December 1, 2019

November Quick Picks and Pans

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) The wealthy and powerful Martha Ivers (now O’Neil) (Barbara Stanwyck) is married to meek district attorney hopeful Walter O’Neil (Kirk Douglas in his film debut). Both individuals harbor a dark secret about her past, which is brought to light when her childhood friend rolls into town. Van Heflin plays Sam Masterson, a man from the wrong side of the tracks with a shady agenda. Stanwyck presents a complex, morally ambiguous performance as Martha, who still holds a flame for Sam. Lizabeth Scott is also good as Toni Marachek, a young woman with a checkered past, who vies for Sam’s affections. Filled with intriguing characters and more twists than a mountain road, you’re never sure where it’s going until the final scene.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Criss Cross (1949) Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo star as Steve and Anna, formerly married, now locked in a risky affair. Despite warnings from his friends and family that she’s nothing but trouble, he keeps returning to Anna like a moth to a bug zapper. She’s now married to a dangerous crime boss Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), who begins to suspect something isn’t right. In order to nullify Slim’s concerns, Steve agrees to participate in an armored car heist. Meanwhile, Steve and Anna plot to double-cross Slim so they can be together again. Criss Cross illustrates how the heart may want what it wants, but it’s liable to drive you to ruin.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Bone Tomahawk (2015) The debut feature from writer/director S. Craig Zahler plays like a mix of The Searchers with The Hills Have Eyes. Kurt Russell stars as Sheriff Hunt, who leads a small posse to rescue his deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) and a young doctor, Samantha (Lili Simmons), from a band of cannibals. Zahler’s horror western is grim and gory, with moments of unexpected humor. Many of the lighter scenes can be attributed to Richard Jenkins as Chicory, Hunt’s eccentric second deputy with a postmodern sensibility and an unfortunate tendency to run off at the mouth. Bone Tomahawk is a disturbing, well-acted film that might not suit everyone’s taste, but it’s a refreshing departure from the expected.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Hangar 18 (1980) A decent cast and a wacky premise can’t save this dull conspiracy movie from seeming like a TV movie of the week with a slightly bigger budget. Space shuttle astronauts Steve Bancroft and Lew Price (Gary Collins and James Hampton) witness a fatal encounter with a UFO while they’re in orbit. Once they’re back on Earth, they’re pursued by feds (led by Robert Vaughn) that want to keep them quiet. While the chase is on, NASA official Harry Forbes (Darren McGavin, in an underwritten role) leads an elite team of scientists, who attempt to unlock the secrets of the captured alien spacecraft. Bad special effects, cheap looking sets and an uninspired UFO design elicit yawns rather than awe. It’s a shame the results are so lackluster. With the right filmmakers, this could have been fun.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Short Take: D.O.A.

(1949) Directed by Rudolph Maté; Written by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene; Starring: Edmond O'Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler, Beverly Garland, Lynn Baggett and William Ching; Available on DVD, Kanopy and Amazon Prime 

Rating: **** 
“You knew who I was when I came in here today, but you were surprised to see me alive, weren’t you? But I’m not alive, Mrs. Phillips. Sure, I can stand here and talk to you, I can breathe, and I can move. But I’m not alive, because I did take that poison, and nothing can save me.” – Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien)

D.O.A.* starts off with a dynamite premise, told from the perspective of a man whose hours are numbered. In the opening scene, our protagonist, Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien), arrives at a police station to report a murder – his own. The ensuing story, told in flashback, recounts his strange tale about how he came to be fatally poisoned, and his thirst for vengeance. His frenzied quest, as a man with nothing left to lose, takes him to Los Angeles (where the famous Bradbury Building makes an appearance) to track down a business associate, and back to San Francisco.

* Fun Fact: D.O.A. marks the film debut of Beverly Garland, who appears as Miss Foster, Mr. Phillips’ secretary.

As he’s introduced to us, Frank is a bit of a heel, but as the film progresses, he gradually becomes more sympathetic. He plans a solitary vacation to San Francisco, which doesn’t sit well with his co-dependent girlfriend/secretary Paula (Pamela Britton). Apparently never hearing the aphorism “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” she calls him repeatedly, sends a bouquet to his hotel room, and sensing that he’s in big trouble, travels to San Francisco to meet him. As obnoxious as her behavior seems on the surface, it serves to ground Frank, causing him to re-evaluate his relationship with her, and form a belated appreciation for her efforts.

In the space of a few days, Frank experiences all five stages of grief, as outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book Death and Dying (Source: : 1) Denial – After he begins to feel a stomachache, a trip to the doctor confirms all isn’t well. Due to the poison he’s unwillingly ingested, he only has days to live. His incredulous reaction is understandable, given the circumstances (“This is a mistake. This could be a mistake.”); followed by 2) Anger – Unwilling to accept the bad news, Frank storms out of the office (“You’re crazy!”); 3) Bargaining – Frank visits another doctor, which only confirms the first prognosis; 4) Depression –This is best illustrated by the scene when Frank waits by a newsstand, watching happy couples pass by on the street. They’re presumably investing in bright futures – a future he and Paula will never share; and finally, 5) Acceptance – As indicated by the somber opening and closing scenes, Frank is resigned to his fate.

The filmmakers are purposefully coy about the poison, referring to the substance as “luminous toxin.” Judging by its glowing properties, we can deduce it’s something radioactive, but that’s about it. The end credits assert that luminous toxin is a real poison, but we’re left in the dark (pun intended) about what it is, specifically. The acting, along with the music from Dimitri Tiomkin, is turned up several notches, matching the frenetic pace of the film. This tone works well for Neville Brand’s memorable performance as Chester, a sadistic thug who takes pleasure in causing pain (He hits Frank in the stomach just to increase his suffering). D.O.A. packs a lot of entertainment in a scant 83 minutes, with a labyrinthine plot, ambiguous motivations, a host of colorful characters, and a fatalistic streak running throughout. If there’s one lesson the film teaches us, whatever you do, don’t notarize any illicit radium shipments.

One word of caution: Since this film is public domain, poor copies abound. The DVD I rented from Netflix looks like it was copied from VHS. Alas, there’s a better version streaming on Amazon Prime.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Some Belated Acknowledgements

Time has a nasty habit of getting away before you know it. Way back in January, I was nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award by the hardest working blogger on the web, Gill Jacob of Realweegie MidgetReviews. Fast forward several months to September, and I was nominated for the LiebsterAward by the wise and powerful Rebecca Deniston of Taking Up Room.  But as ‘80s TV pitchmen hawking their wares would say, “Wait, there’s more!” About a week ago, the dynamic duo of Michael Denney and Andrew Stephen from Maniacs and Monsters nominated me for the Sunshine Blogger Award. I’m truly fortunate to have met such wonderful people through Twitter and the movie blogging community.

 Rules? Where we’re going, we don’t need rules.  

Since this is a joint Versatile Blogger/Liebster/Sunshine post, I’m throwing out the rules, and simply acknowledging a few bloggers you ought to know. If you’re listed below, there’s no need to do anything – just give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done! If I’ve left anyone out, I sincerely apologize, and hope to get to you on the rebound.

Just to show that I haven’t gone completely off the rails I’ve listed seven facts about myself (per Gill’s challenge), and answered 11 questions apiece from Rebecca and the Maniacs and Monsters team.

But first, a tip of the hat to:

Ernie Fink of Until the Lights Go Up
Hanley Peterson of Patron Devil Book Reviews
Terence Towles Canote: A Shroud of Thoughts

…And a hearty “back at ‘ya” to: Realweegie Midget Reviews, Taking Up Room, and Maniacs and Monsters.

Seven Facts About Myself (Note: My apologies if some of these are recycled from earlier posts)

  1. I’ve lived in four states: California (my birthplace), Washington State, Texas and Pennsylvania.
  2. I've flown in a glider (what a view!).
  3. My wife and I met while working at a mom & pop video store – We will be celebrating our 27th wedding anniversary in February.
  4. My most prized convention trinket is a Hellraiser puzzle box signed by Clive Barker.
  5. I have an M.A. in Counseling, and two bachelor’s degrees, in English and Psychology.
  6. I’m an incurable roller coaster junkie. Many, many moons ago, I worked at Six Flags Magic Mountain (No, I wasn’t a ride operator).
  7.  I love the ocean and all things nautical. I don’t think I could ever live in a landlocked state.

My answers to Rebecca’s questions:

  1. If you were a plant, what kind would you be and why?
My knee-jerk reaction would be some sort of carnivorous plant, like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. I’m not necessarily enamored by the diet, but world domination is a nice perk.
  1. What’s a talent you wish you had?
I wish I had some graphic arts training, so my blog was more aesthetically pleasing.
  1. Would you rather have coffee or tea?
Coffee is the fuel that got me through grad school a decade ago, and it keeps me blogging.
  1. You can own costumes and props from one film. Any era, any genre. Which film would you pick?
I’d go with Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956), although I understand he was recently purchased by a private collector for a princely sum.
  1. If you could have anyone follow your blog or your social media accounts, who would it be?
Guillermo del Toro. I think he’d be…mildly interested.
  1. Do you think vampires should sparkle?
Nope. Never, unless it’s for comic effect.
  1. Who’s your favorite film critic or historian?
Roger Ebert – His love of movies was contagious. He had such a lively writing style and an encyclopedic knowledge of film, yet somehow never sounded pedantic or pretentious. His writing continues to provide inspiration for me to do what I do.
  1. What are your top three must-play songs for a road trip?
Oh, it’s too hard to narrow down to three songs, but three artists I often feature on road trips are: David Bowie, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and T-Rex.
  1. Which film or films should not be remade under any circumstances?
Any of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies. They’re absolutely perfect as they are.
  1. Do you ever think you’d like to work in films instead of just writing about them?
At one time, I wanted to be a screenwriter, but that ship has sailed. I’d still love to appear in films in small but memorable roles. Hey if Sydney Greenstreet could do it, why can’t I?
  1. What’s your favorite thing about blogging?
Without question, my favorite thing is hearing readers comment that they learned about a movie they never knew about through my blog, and were prompted to watch it, based on my recommendation. It’s times like that that remind me why I blog about movies.   

And last but certainly not least, here are my responses to 11 more questions from Maniacs and Monsters:

  1. Do you consider yourself a fan of horror, averse to horror, or a patron of any genre including horror if it is entertaining?
I’m a lifelong fan of horror in its many forms, although slashers are generally not my thing.

  1. What is the first horror film you remember watching and what was your reaction?
The first I recall was Frankenstein (1931), watching it through my fingers (when the monster appeared) on my parents’ small RCA TV in their bedroom. Shameless plug: For more musings about the stuff that kept me awake at night, see my piece, “Scared Sh*tless in the ‘70s.” 

  1. What is your opinion of real-world paranormal activities such as ghosts, spiritualism, UFOs, cryptozoology, or extrasensory perception?
To quote Winston Zeddmore, “If there’s a steady paycheck, I’ll believe anything you say.” But seriously, I consider myself an empiricist – if it can’t be recorded or measured in some way, it’s not a real phenomenon. However, I remain open to the possibility of any of these things. As the late great Arthur C. Clarke was fond of saying, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them.”

  1. Have you ever had what you believe to be a paranormal experience or at least an experience you could not explain?

Not exactly, but I’ve visited places that had a strange “aura” about them, for lack of a better term. Nothing’s convinced me there were supernatural forces at work…yet.

  1. If you were cast in a horror movie, which of the following roles would you want and why:
    • last girl/guy
    • killer/monster
    • fodder for the slaughter
    • evil genius/mad scientist/cult leader
    • tortured soul
    • kick-ass hero/military leader
    • creepy caretaker/gas station attendant/neighbor/sea captain
    • member of the faceless zombie/demon/alien horde
    • wise stranger that warned those reckless kids

I’d probably be the “wise stranger,” although no one ever believes him//her. Just look at Crazy Ralph from the first two Friday the 13th movies, and see what happened to him. Hmm… On second thought, is it too late to opt for the “last guy?”

  1. Horror films, much like comedies, have been historically ignored by the Oscars. What horror film or horror performance do you feel deserved, but did not receive, recognition by the Academy?
I don’t hold a lot of stock in the Academy Awards – It seems the rule rather than exception that something I’d care to see wins. A couple of glaring omissions that spring to mind: Let the Right One In (2008) at least deserved a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film; Zelda Rubinstein should have received a Best Supporting Actress nod for Poltergeist (1982)

  1. Which subgenre of horror is most appealing to you (noting that these subgenres often overlap):
    • action horror
    • ‘B’ movies/camp
    • body horror
    • comedy horror
    • disaster/natural horror
    • giallo
    • gothic horror
    • horror thriller
    • kaiju
    • psychological horror
    • science fiction horror
    • slasher
    • splatter
    • supernatural horror
Psychological Horror (e.g., The Haunting) is my “go to” sub-genre. I love films that respect the intelligence of the audience, allowing us the freedom to fill in the blanks. On the other hand, there are times when only a good gothic horror from Hammer or Amicus will do.

  1. Assuming you observe Halloween, describe a favorite costume (scary or otherwise) that you have worn.
Nothing beats my old Megathor mask kit (see video below). I got a lot of mileage out of that mask over the years, adding LEDs to the eyes. To complete my costume, I wore a sweatshirt with a homemade glittery insignia and a bath towel cape. I miss my Megathor mask.  

  1. What is your greatest fear/phobia?
Crowds and social gatherings freak me out. I’m not a very social creature by design.
  1. You die only to awaken as a ghost, vampire, or zombie. What do you do?
After the initial shock has worn off, I accept my new reality. Sure, there’s the existential dread that goes along with being an ex-human, but I’ll try to make the best of things (Hey, this is me at my most optimistic).

  1. Darkness falls across the land. The alien invasion has begun. Civilization is collapsing.  The dead are returning from the grave. Cthulhu is rising from his eternal slumber. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse are on the ride. It’s the end of the world. You are among a small group boarding an experimental starship to escape to another galaxy. You are allowed to bring any three items of your choosing. What do you bring (and no fair bringing something ‘useful’)?
Does my Blu-ray/DVD collection count as one thing? If not, I’d have to flip a coin or choose a random number. I’d probably bring my camera (so I can document my journey) and new TV (I just bought it this year – I’m not parting with it).

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Kiss of the Vampire

(1963) Directed by Don Sharp; Written by John Elder (aka: Anthony Hinds); Starring: Clifford Evans, Edward de Souza, Noel Willman, Jennifer Daniel, Barry Warren, Jacquie Wallis and Isobel Black; Available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“I decided straight away he was going to be a creature possessed of bloodlust and great sexual appetite. I focused on Ravna’s power.” – Noel Willman on his character, Dr. Ravna (from The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Bates)

“I felt that the picture had to have a style about it, that it had to have a feeling of elegance and decadence.” – Don Sharp (from Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review from July2015. After re-evaluating the film, I upped my star rating (did I mention I hate ratingmovies?).

Thanks (Or should I say “fangs”?) to Gabriela from PaleWriter for hosting Dark and Deep: The Gothic Horror Blogathon, a celebration of all things dark and mysterious. With this in mind, it was an easy choice for today’s review, one of the lesser-known but no less-deserving titles from the famed production company.

When you think of Hammer films and vampire movies, the first that likely come to mind are the Dracula films with Christopher Lee as the titular Count, and Cushing as his archnemesis, Professor Van Helsing. You might also bring up the Karnstein trilogy, which helped make stars of Ingrid Pitt, Madeline Smith, and the Collinson twins. Following the success of The Brides of Dracula (1960), Anthony Hinds set his sights on another vampire film – this time without the presence of Lee or Cushing (even Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper was otherwise occupied). Australian director Don Sharp was approached by Hinds to direct his first Hammer film. Although The Kiss of the Vampire was filmed in 1962,*/** problems with distribution (distributor Universal-International, feared that the film’s climactic swarm of bats was too similar to scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, released in 1963) delayed its release in the States until 1963, and in the U.K. until 1964.

* Fun Fact #1: The Kiss of the Vampire was filmed back-to-back with The Old Dark House and Paranoiac.

** Fun Fact #2: Ever budget-conscious, numerous set pieces in The Kiss of the Vampire appeared in other Hammer films. The production/art design team of Bernard Robinson and Don Mingaye recycled set pieces from various productions: the same stained-glass window was used in The Old Dark House, a staircase was repurposed from Paranoiac, and the stone griffins from The Brides of Dracula were re-purposed for Ravna’s castle.

While traveling in the Bavarian mountains on their honeymoon, Gerald and Mariane Harcourt (Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel) run out of gas. The nearby village appears deserted; likewise, the dust-coated inn where they decide to spend the night is suspiciously bereft of guests. The innkeeper and his wife, Bruno and Anna (Peter Madden and Vera Cook) are accommodating, but reticent about the conditions of the village, or Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman), who resides in the nearby castle. Gerald soon discovers that their troubles have only begun, as Ravna fixes his sights on Mariane as his newest disciple.

It’s been said that vampire films (and by extension depictions of vampirism) reflect the times in which they’re made, and The Kiss of the Vampire is no exception. In this case, the central theme (the wealthy preying on the impoverished) is just as relevant today. When Ravna entertains Gerald and Mariane at his castle, he does little to mask his disdain for the common folk in the village, stating, “It often happens in life that the most beautiful things are made from the most unpromising of materials, don’t you find?” He further comments about the wine they’re drinking as being “made from grapes trampled by the feet of a peasant.” At once this reveals his attitude toward those less fortunate, but it’s also an indication about how he views his disciples, having saved them from a lesser existence. We learn that the innkeepers live in fear of Ravna, after he took away their daughter Tania (Isobel Black), who now serves as one of his undead minions.

Isobel Black makes an impressive film debut as Tania. She has few lines and relatively little screen time, but her presence makes a big impression, bringing an overt sexuality to the role. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, set in a fog-shrouded graveyard, she claws at the dirt, in an attempt to recover one of her cohorts. Co-star (and headliner) Jennifer Daniel is nearly upstaged by Black’s mischievous, almost feral performance.

Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) is first seen in the film’s stunning opening scene, where he impales his daughter’s coffin with a shovel. He’s sort of an alcoholic version of Van Helsing, drowning his sorrows in liquor after he lost his daughter to Ravna. Evans plays his character with zealous conviction – Zimmer doesn’t want to see history repeat with Mariane, vowing to destroy Ravna and his followers (“forcing evil to destroy itself”). In a cringey scene that’s surpassed only by Cushing in The Brides of Dracula (1960), he burns his arm over an open flame to ameliorate a bite he sustained from Tania.

As a protagonist, Gerald is a bit on the obtuse side, managing to get drugged twice in the movie. The first time, he drinks a glass of “special” champagne at Ravna’s masquerade ball. In the second instance, Zimmer gets the best of him, before he can impulsively run off to Ravna’s castle to rescue his wife, sans a solid plan. On the other hand, Gerald deserves credit where it’s due. During an initiation ritual, Tania scratches his chest, leaving streaks of blood. In what can only be described as one of the most “metal” moments in Hammer history, he smears the blood in the form of a cross, thwarting her ambitions.  

The Kiss of the Vampire features some extraordinary sets and art direction. As mentioned in Fun Fact #2, the production design wizards at Hammer were masters at doing more with less, repurposing and re-arranging sets and set pieces until they looked like they were purpose-built for this production. In the masquerade sequence, our eyes are treated to a ballroom festooned with a colorful menagerie of paper lanterns, complemented by an equally colorful, bizarre assortment of masks (I’m not sure if Stanley Kubrick was a fan, but the masks and secret society element seem to parallel one sequence of Eyes Wide Shut). Overall, the movie looks like a much more expensive production – that is, until the final effects sequence, in which a swarm of fake, barely mobile bats* on visible wires spoil the illusion.  

* Fun Fact #3: 21 bats were manufactured by the prop department, but additional bats were purchased from several local Woolworths stores.

Sharp proved his mettle as a director for Hammer with this film (On a side note, isn’t “Sharp” the perfect name for a director of a movie with fanged creatures of the night? Okay, I’ll see myself out…), and would go on to direct other projects for the production company, The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). If you can look past the underwhelming ending, the rest of the film works quite well. It warrants re-evaluation by Hammer and non-Hammer fans alike, delivering everything you might expect in a gothic horror film. Don’t let the paucity of Hammer regulars fool you. The Kiss of the Vampire is a Hammer vampire film that compares with the best of them.

Sources for this article: The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Bates; Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey