Henry Cass, 1958
Starring: Donald Wolfit, Barbara Shelley, Vincent Ball, Victor Maddern
When a young doctor, John Pierre, is wrongly convicted of a crime, he’s sent to serve out his sentence at an insane asylum. The prison’s doctor, Callistratus, takes Pierre under his wing and allows him to assist with his unorthodox experiments. He’s trying to cure a rare blood disease — one Callistratus secretly suffers from himself — with the help of his deformed assistant Carl. He won’t let anything or anyone get in his way and when Pierre’s case is overturned and he’s ordered released, Callistratus pretends he died during an attempted prison escape. He also prevents Pierre’s real escape and forces him to stay and assist with the experiments, but Pierre’s girlfriend gets a job at the castle, hoping to find out the truth.
Hammer writer Jimmy Sangster was hired by producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman — also responsible for The Flesh and the Fiends and The Trollenberg Terror — to write this film for Artistes Alliance. In addition to the colorized, British editions of the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises, Sangster penned sci-fi horror films like X the Unknown (1956) and The Trollenberg Terror (1958), as well as a bevy of Hammer’s suspense-horror films like Taste of Fear (1961), The Maniac (1963), Paranoiac (1963), and so many more. And Blood of the Vampire definitely riffs on Hammer’s first two, genre-changing films, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958), both written by Sangster, and if anything, it stands as an early testament to his talent and impact on horror cinema.
I wish this had gone more of a Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman or House of Dracula route. It squanders the fact that Callistratus is essentially a vampire and focuses more on the mad science angle. He’s staked in the heart of the beginning of the film and is revived by Carl — with a heart transplant (!!!) — but it would be nice if there were some scenes of the doctor stalking lovely ladies or even unfortunate prisoners and sucking some blood. The film’s mild gore and moments of torture are either related to the insane asylum — an occasional, often colorful setting for horror and suspense films as far afield as Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Hammer’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Amicus film Asylum, William Girdler’s Asylum of Satan, Alone in the Dark, Nightmare on Elm Street 3, Hellraiser 2, and more — or to the doctor’s experiments.
The film is worth watching for a few performances, namely Sir Donald Wolfit (Lawrence of Arabia, Beckett) as the gleefully demented Dr. Callistratus. He’s actually overshadowed by Victor Maddern (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Carry On Emmannuelle) as his hunchbacked assistant Carl, who has one eye grotesquely drooping out of its socket. And keep an eye out for the always lovely Barbara Shelley (Quatermass and the Pit, The Gorgon), one of Hammer’s most talented regulars, as Pierre’s lady love. Shelley fortunately rises a bit above the damsel in distress trope and takes it upon herself to go undercover (as a housemaid) at the asylum. Interestingly, it’s Carl’s love for her that sets in motion Callistratus’s defeat rather than any actions on behalf of the inept hero.
Admittedly, Blood of the Vampire is not the greatest of British horror films and it’s is probably lesser seen for a reason. There are a few slow, talkie scenes and plenty of moments that seem like they’re about to explode into violence and horror but quickly fizzle out. You could even make the argument that this isn’t a true horror film, but more of a period piece drama with medical experimentation and prison themes. But fans of Gothic British horror, as well as anyone who likes mad doctor movies, will find plenty to enjoy thanks to the colorful sets and over the top performances. You can find Blood of the Vampire on a double feature disc from Dark Sky along with The Hellfire Club, a dud that I’ll review in a few weeks.