Thursday, December 3, 2015

THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE

Don Sharp, 1963
Starring: Edward de Souza, Jennifer Daniel, Clifford Evans, Noel Willman

A newly married couple, Gerald and Marianne, are honeymooning in the German countryside when their car runs out of gas and they are forced to take refuge at a local inn. A nearby aristocratic family, led by the charming Dr. Ravna, invites them for dinner and becomes particularly fond of Marianne. Unfortunately it turns out that Ravna and his brood are a cult of Satan worshipping vampires. They abduct Marianne, intending to initiate her, and try to convince the distraught Gerald that he is going mad and his wife never existed. He is forced to turn to the frequently drunk Professor Zimmer for help.

Conceived as a loose sequel to The Brides of Dracula, The Kiss of the Vampire is a strangely neglected, though very solid entry in Hammer’s vaguely connected series of non-Dracula vampire films and remains one of their finer efforts. While a film like The Vampire Lovers is celebrated as one of the studio’s best, it makes me sad that The Kiss of the Vampire is so little seen — it makes a great trilogy with The Brides of Dracula and Vampire Circus, tied together by the absence of Count Dracula and a focus on an aristocratic vampire cult.

Helmed by Don Sharp — who directed a number of Hammer films, some of the Fu Manchu series, and Psychomania — and written by Hammer co-owner and producer Anthony Hinds, The Kiss of the Vampire further explores themes presented in The Brides of Dracula. Vampirism seems to be related to an aristocratic, debauched lifestyle and, like the Dracula films, the vampire mythology is kept purposefully vague. Ravna fortunately is not a Dracula figure, but he’s a riff on The Brides of Dracula’s charming but sinister Baron Meinster and is the charming leader of a Satanic cult. The incredible finale, originally meant for The Brides of Dracula, involves Dr. Zimmer banishing the vampires with a Satanic ritual that summons a massive swarm of bats from hell. Say it with me: a swarm of bats from hell.

This stylish, energetic horror film is one of the most interesting experiments in group vampirism. Unlike the wonderful, though much later Near Dark, this is not a group of throat-ripping blood slurpers. The Ravnas merely want to be fancy — for all eternity. There’s lovely cinematography from Alan Hume, who makes every frame seem poetic despite the cheap set. There are some key set pieces, including a wonderful, blackly comic opening scene where Zimmer — who has essentially become an alcoholic out of grief — crashes his daughter’s funeral and cuts her head off with a shovel while she is still in her coffin. There are plenty of stylish sequences at the Ravna’s castle, particularly a masquerade ball that seems like an obvious inspiration for Polanski’s horror-comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers made only a few years later in 1967.

Though the film suffers from a lack of Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, there’s a strong cast made up of a mishmash of lesser seen Hammer actors, including Clifford Evans from Curse of the Werewolf, Edward de Souza from Phantom of the Opera, and Noel Willman, who would later star in The Reptile. The incredibly seductive but way underused Isobel Black, who appears as the innkeeper’s daughter who has been “adopted” by the Ravnas, would certainly have stolen the film if she were given more screen time. Sadly she only made a brief mark on British horror with films like Hammer’s Twins of Evil and 10 Rillington Place.

Though The Kiss of the Vampire is a near classic, there are some flaws. The middle section of the film is a bit plodding, whereas the conclusion is rushed, occasionally comical, and lacks an actual climax. Unfortunately some of the effects are appallingly cheap, namely the final sequence with the swarm of vampire-eating bats. Zimmer is given little screen time and is transitioned into a Van Helsing-like character too quickly. While the vampire coven starts out elegant and mysterious, by the end of the film they are sniveling, panicking, and acting not at all like powerful creatures of the undead. But this charming little film makes it easy to forget its flaws, sit back, and enjoy the ride. 

There was originally a barebones Image release, but that is now out of print. It was replaced with a vastly improved transfer, now only available in the eight-film Hammer Horror Series box set. Avoid the U.S. version, Kiss of Evil, which was cut so extensively that new scenes with additional actors had to be shot, creating a new subplot and making the film nonsensical in parts. It comes highly recommended, particularly for anyone who loves unusual vampire films.

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