Kiss Of The Vampire (1964)
Widely regarded as Hammer's other attempt at putting Dracula on-screen without resorting to the (much simpler, surely?) act of actually having the count in the story (the other being the inappropriately-titled Brides Of Dracula), Kiss Of The Vampire is the kind of full-blooded 60s Gothic that gives you a healthy reminder of just why you love these films so much, and why Hammer are rightly regarded as one of the best things to ever come out of the British film industry.
The Hammer stroke of genius was to take well-worn themes and give them a modern (for the time) twist, so after decades of exponentially-degrading Universal garbage, Curse Of Frankenstein and (Horror Of) Dracula were like a bolt from the blue (or more appropriately, red). But the Hammer team didn't rest on their laurels following these successes - not for them a load of inferior sequels. They kept reinventing their own genre, so (ignoring the odd misfire) every couple of years they produced a film which improved on the formula. Kiss Of The Vampire, coming before Dracula's legitimate sequel (Dracula - Prince Of Darkness), actually went into pre-production as Dracula III. It's bursting with unused ideas from Brides, and as such goes to show that whatever modern film makers might like to think (every couple of years you get a film which claims to have a "new spin" on the myth), the re-invention of vampires was going on as early as 1962 (when the film was shot).
Vampirism in this film is seen as a product of a dodgy lifestyle (Zimmer's wayward daughter fell in with a bad crowd, and that seemed to be enough), and the bite (much as in Brides) can be cured by burning it out. These vampires can go out in daylight (providing it's cloudy and they've got shade - as Zimmer says "the sun... is the one thing a vampire can't tolerate), and their method of despatch well, it's a first. What's more, it is intimated that a vampire can cure themselves by turning to God for help.
The opening scenes set a high standard which the rest of the film occasionally struggles (but usually manages) to keep up with. As a funeral works its way through a graveyard, the mourners notice a dark figure on the horizon. He approaches, crying, and sprinkles holy water on the coffin, before taking a spade and plunging it viciously through the lid. Much to the onlookers' shock, there's a scream from inside, and gouts of blood well up from the splintered hole. As everyone runs away, the camera takes us through the coffin lid, to reveal a woman's face - her fanged teeth bared. It's powerful stuff, which is allowed to play out slowly and at its own pace. Hammer rarely made a common-or-garden "ordinary" horror film - there were always little touches of brilliance - and sometimes you need to revisit a scene like this to (exuse me) Hammer this fact home.
Things then progress with slightly more familiarity. A young couple on a motoring trip break down in a forest. They make their way to a nearby village hotel (where they're greeted with a cheery "Why can't you leave us alone?"). The place is devoid of customers and swathed in dust sheets, but the hotelier and his wife (on seeing their visitors are not who they expected) welcome the couple with open arms. Only one other room is occupied - by Dr Zimmer (Clifford Evans), the chap with the spade from scene one.
The couple (newlyweds Gerald and Marianne Harcourt, played by Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel) are invited for dinner at the nearby castle - the owner having spotted them breaking down through his telescope. Up at the castle they're introduced to their host Dr Ravna (Noel Willman), who enters the room in a very Dracula-like way - down the stairs and moaning that he has few guests. He lives in the castle with his son and daughter, and the dinner is a weird affair - everyone only seems to have eyes for the (admittedly gorgeous) Marianne.
Meanwhile, one of Ravna's household (a young popsy) has slipped out to the graveyard, where she goes to the recently-dug grave. "Why have you waited so long to see us, my sweet?" she asks the mound of earth. "Why are you lying here all alone?" On discovering her undead friend's fate, she's confronted by Zimmer (the dead girl was his daughter) who she bites on the arm before escaping. Zimmer rushes home and manages to avoid the curse of vampirism by burning it out of him, in a particularly gruesome scene.
The Harcourts are invited up to the castle again, where they take part in a masked ball - from a visual point of view, the highlight of the entire film. The colours are astonishing, and the masks are hideous examples of superb design. Everyone there (the castle is full of Ravna's acolytes) only has eyes for Marianne, leaving Gerald no option but to get rat-arsed. Marianne is tricked into going upstairs without him, where she comes across Ravna, comatose, with blood pouring from his mouth. He rises, kisses her on the forehead, then bares his fangs
With Marianne "got", the party is over. Gerald wakes up the next day to find that everyone is denying knowledge of his wife, including Bruno, the kindly hotelier. Such a plot twist is always paranoia-inducing, but on this occasion it doesn't last very long. Zimmer is on hand to explain what's going on, and to tell Gerald about his daughter - how she fell in with "the so-called 'smart set'," and returned home "riven with disease". "And, she was a vampire " he adds. "They even tried to follow her beyond the grave. The name of the man who corrupted her was Ravna."
Against his better judgement, Gerald heads back to the castle, where he's informed that his wife has "grown up" since he last saw her. A new, sexy Marianne is revealed, and in another queasy scene, Gerald is almost "raped" by Tania, Ravna's daughter (with plucky presence of mind, he wards her off by quickly drawing a cross in his own blood on his chest, earning him 10/10 for effort, at least).
Gerald escapes (one of the vampires is despatched by dropping an obelisk on them - this lot aren't quite as indestructible as usual), and Zimmer reveals his plan to "destroy them all", which, if you believe the stories about the effects budget, means a quick trip to the nearest Woolworth's.
Kiss Of The Vampire is a superb example of "proper" Hammer Gothic - something this website aimed to champion on first being set up, but saw sidelined by a seemingly endless stream of 70s kitsch, tat and nastiness. The ending (providing you can suspend disbelief and see past the rubber bats and string) is powerful stuff - predicting the finale of The Devil Rides Out (chalk circles, remote-controlled girls, "great winds") and giving a spectacular end to the vampire and his disciples (something usually missing from such films).
*Thanks to Paul "Mocata" Moody for supplying the review copy of this film!
Last updated: February 24, 2010
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