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

Sunday, October 27, 2019

October Quick Picks and Pans – Horror Month 2019

The Evil (1978) Psychologist C.J. Arnold and his wife Caroline (Richard Crenna and Joanna Pettet) begin renovations on a decrepit antebellum mansion with the help of some volunteers. Before long, it becomes clear that the house wants them dead or at least prisoners. Meanwhile, a spectral visitor appears to warn Caroline. Most of the story is predictable, with the usual assortment of things that go bump in the night, followed by the requisite disbelieving husband (she’s a medical doctor, damn it!). What pushes this over the top from a pedestrian haunted house movie is the climactic confrontation with Satan, played with gusto by Victor Buono. Give it a try.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

The Bells (1926) Director James Young directed this filmed version of a stage play, which in turn was based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem. Mathias, a tavern owner (Lionel Barrymore) who’s deep in debt, murders a traveling merchant with an axe. He profits from the merchant’s gold, but his troubles are just beginning. While the police and the merchant’s brother search for the murderer, he’s pursued by a mesmerist, played by Boris Karloff, who claims to have the power to discern between lies and truth. Barrymore is convincing as a man haunted by his conscience as he confronts the merchant’s ghost. Unfortunately, the film’s execution is a little too straightforward for the subject matter, which could have benefited from a more dreamlike approach. Despite the uninspired visuals and a tepid conclusion, it’s worth checking out for Barrymore and Karloff’s performances.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Mausoleum (1983) A woman possessed by a centuries-old family curse (Bobbie Bresee) becomes a lusty demon, and an ancient* crypt (adorned with green lights, fog and multiple rats) appears to hold the secret. No one seems to question when the people around her start dying, and her bland, patronizing husband (Marjoe Gortner) remains clueless about the strange occurrences in their house. It’s up to her psychologist (Norman Burton) to set things right. Don’t try to make any sense out of it – you’ll probably end up hurting your brain. It’s good dumb fun, and not much else. Sometimes, however, that’s all you need from a movie.

* How this centuries-old crypt ended up in an L.A. cemetery (judging from the palm trees) is anyone’s guess.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (out of print) and Amazon Prime

The Corpse Grinders (1971) This cheapie from Ted V. Mikels is basically Sweeney Todd for cats. As a cost-saving measure, the owners of Lotus Cat Food (a poster advertises “For cats who like people”) decide to find a new cheap source of meat (cue the ominous music), dead people. The cans are flying off the shelves as fast as they can manufacture it, and cats dig the stuff, but the felines develop a taste for human flesh. A burned out, alcoholic MD and his nurse-girlfriend (Sean Kenney and Monika Kelly) decide to investigate the dastardly goings-on at the Lotus plant. Bad movie fans will find lots to love, with the cheap sets (we never see more than one room of the “hospital,” and the pet food plant consists of an office and a small basement), bad acting and unbelievable plot. The Corpse Grinders is more fun than it has a right to be, even if it isn’t “good” by most sane definitions.

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

Grace (2009) Writer/director Paul Solet’s debut feature recalls early Cronenberg (The Brood) and Larry Cohen (It’s Alive) with its subject matter and squirmy scenes. After suffering injuries in an automobile accident that kills her husband, mother-to-be Madeline Matheson (Jordan Ladd) fears that her baby is also dead. The child isn’t stillborn, although something’s not quite right. Madeline soon discovers that the infant thirsts for blood, and flies keep gathering around the crib. The film toys with themes of enmeshment, loyalty, and how a mother’s love conquers all, but doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to. The ending does little to wrap things up, suggesting a sequel that never occurred. It’s a rough sketch with some interesting moments, but it could have been so much more.

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

Death Bed, the Bed that Eats (1977) I’m not sure how (or why) this movie was made – Is it a joke or is the joke on us? Narrated by a dead artist whose spirit resides behind a painting, we learn of the titular monster’s (I’m using the term “monster” loosely) beginnings, as a demon’s tears seep into a bed, creating a cursed piece of furniture that (ahem) eats anyone who dares to get too close. It’s a decidedly absurd premise for an absurd movie. Since the bed can’t run after anyone, the script must provide contrived reasons for people to end up in compromised positions. The results are about as good as you could expect, although it’s never boring.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Kanopy

The Vineyard (1989) This oddity from co-writer/co-director James Hong feels like it was cobbled together from several other (better) flicks. Hong stars as Dr. Elson Po, a wealthy vintner who’s discovered the secret to longevity through a jade amulet (combined with some bloodletting). A group of vapid 20-somethings are invited to his island enclave/winery under the auspices of a movie audition. Naturally, they don’t know they’re about to be harvested. Some of his victims, past and present, reside in a dungeon, while others squirm in the ground as zombies (how they got to be that way is never satisfactorily explained). The scattershot story is all over the board, filled with incompetent henchmen, and guests doing stupid things. Hong seems to be enjoying himself, though.

Horror fans, take note: Dr. Po’s estate is none other than the Dunsmuir House in Oakland, California, which featured prominently in Burnt Offerings (1976) and Phantasm (1979).

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

Blackenstein (aka: Black Frankenstein) (1973) Eddie (Joe De Sue) returns from Vietnam, missing his arms and legs.  All is not lost, however, when his fiancée, Dr. Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) consults with her colleague Dr. Stein (John Hart), who’s developed a DNA-infused serum (don’t ask me how this is supposed to work). Dr. Stein successfully grafts new arms and legs (the film never addresses how Dr. Stein acquires the limbs) on Eddie, but the doctor’s jealous assistant tampers with the serum, turning him into a deadly, unstoppable monster.  No one seems to notice the nightly rampages or bothers to keep him secure. Also, except for his assault on a sadistic hospital orderly, there’s no rhyme or reason to his attacks. With its bad acting, bad makeup, and awful story this probably isn’t the blaxploitation horror you’re looking for. My advice: steer clear, and see Blacula instead.

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