Monday, January 6, 2014

GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE

John Hayes, 1972
Starring: William Smith, Michael Pataki, Lyn Peters, Diane Holden

“Father and son--related by BLOOD! ANYONE'S BLOOD!”

Leslie’s boyfriend Paul proposes to her in a cemetery and she accepts. Before they have a chance to celebrate, a strange man leaps out of a grave, murders Paul, and captures Leslie, dragging her back into the grave in order to rape her. The traumatized Leslie learns she is pregnant, but decides to keep the baby, believing it to be Paul’s. When the child is born, it is clear that he is her mysterious assailant’s son and the grey, ashen child will only feed on Leslie’s blood, not her breast milk. It seems his father is Caleb Croft, a serial killer believed to be dead. Undead, as it turns out.

Years later, Leslie passes away and her now adult child, James, goes on a quest to hunt down his father. Croft, actually a vampire over a hundred years old named Charles Croydon, is teaching classes about the occult at a nearby university. Though James is only a half-vampire hybrid, he believes he has the strength to face his father and tries to force him out into the open, revealing his identity on campus. A confrontation soon becomes inevitable.

Grave of the Vampire is supposedly based on The Still Life, an early novel by David Chase, the same David Chase who would rise to fame with his writing for The Sopranos. Also known as Seed of Terror, I can’t pretend that the writing is the film’s strongest element, though there are plenty of good ideas peppered throughout the odd script. Despite its many faults - including some shoddy casting, painful dialogue, and plot holes - Grave of the Vampire comes highly recommended and is definitely one of the underrated, lesser seen vampire gems of the ‘70s.

Veteran cult actor Michael Pataki (Rocky IV, Easy Rider, Dead & Buried, The Baby) is excellent as the evil Caleb/Charles and practically carries the film. He rises above his often ludicrous or mundane dialogue and has a bit in common with Robert Quarry’s Count Yorga (Pataki actually appeared in The Return of Count Yorga) and is suave, intelligent, and sophisticated. On the other hand, he’s also a serial killer and rapist, eschewing most vampires’ sole dependence on blood for some extra curricular violence. This is a welcome twist that keeps the film from being yet another vampire film and as a result, director John Hayes (Garden of the Dead, The Cut-Throats) leaves us with a nasty, mean-spirited, unexpected, and surprisingly refreshing film.

The extremely prolific William Smith (Conan the Barbarian, The Outsiders, Red Dawn) stars as Blade-precursor James. Though his acting chops may not quite be up to a lead performance, he has a few convincing scenes. Plus Michael Pataki overacts quite enough for the both of them. Lyn Peters (Lady Prudence from the Batman TV series) appears as James’ somewhat mature girlfriend and Lieux Dressler (Kingdom of the Spiders, Truck Stop Women) has a nice role as the woman who helps raise him. 

Things lag a bit from time to time, but the crazed conclusion more than makes up for this. Fire is involved, as well as some chain fighting, among other absurd things. Grave of the Vampire has more machismo and less romanticism than a lot of other vampire films from the period and the fight between James and his father is a knock-down, drag-out vampire battle. Violence, as with the previous rape and murders, is more suggested than graphically shown, but that doesn’t take away from the overall feeling of nastiness. There is, of course, a twist ending that enhances the disturbing Oedipal feel. Also, keep in mind that, despite its darker elements, this is a ‘70s film and there is some ridiculous fashion, an impromptu dance sequence, and a séance that kicks off the final confrontation. 

Hopefully one day someone will restore the film, as the current DVD is pale, grainy, and washed out. The film is also currently in the public domain, so it has been easy to find streaming for free online or on Netflix. As I said earlier, it comes recommended and even if the genre isn’t really your cup of tea it’s worth watching once, if only to experience some cult ‘70s wackiness. 
Edit: Apparently there is an even newer DVD that looks a hell of a lot better. Check it out here. 

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