The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)

Director: Don Sharp

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among the producers of horror, Britain’s Hammer Film Productions is in a class by itself. With its stable of talent, including actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, actresses Ingrid Pitt and Barbara Shelley, composer James Bernard, and director Terence Fisher, Hammer developed stylish horror films that always looked more expensive than their economy budgets and delivered rarified thrills and chills that seem so literary in tone that you forget about some of the hearse-size plot holes.

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The Kiss of the Vampire doesn’t feature any of Hammer’s big stars, except perhaps for Edward de Souza, who plays a honeymooner who has to compete with an influential and aristocratic vampire for his new wife. Yet, this film is surely the most memorable Hammer I’ve seen in a very long while, with expensive-looking production values, costumes worthy of a BAFTA, and a truly interesting performance by Jennifer Daniel, whose elegance is reminiscent of Deborah Kerr.

Marianne and Gerald Harcourt (Daniel and de Souza) are motoring through Europe on their honeymoon, when their car runs out of petrol. The appearance of a car in this remote part of Bavaria near the turn of the 20th century is an unusual site, one noted through a spyglass by Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman), the owner of a large chateau overlooking a small town that he largely controls through his great wealth and family influence.

Gerald tells Marianne to stay with the car while he goes for help. The sky darkens, and the wind whips up, spooking Marianne into going off in search of Gerald. Her panic and the foreboding story create agitation in the audience; when she comes upon Gerald suddenly returning with an oxcart to tow the car, she throws herself into his arms in breathless relief. The oxcart driver deposits the car and its occupants in front of an inn. Gerald asks whether it won’t be a bother to have the car blocking the gate. No, the driver assures him, nobody ever comes there to stay.

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When the Harcourts enter the inn, a surprised Bruno (Peter Madden) and Anna (Vera Cook) pull very dusty sheets off all of the lobby furniture and give them their choice of rooms. “They are all empty,” says Anna, “except one.” The only other lodger is Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), whom the Harcourts meets when he is quite drunk but whom we first encounter at the beginning of the film when he attends a funeral, picks up a shovel and thrusts it straight down into the open grave, splitting the wood and causing a flow of blood to seep through the broken wood, to the extreme fright of all the mourners.

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The Harcourts receive an invitation to dine at the Ravna chateau, which Bruno urges them to accept. They are taken by carriage to its front door and greeted graciously by Ravna, his son Carl (Barry Warren) and daughter Sabena (Jacquie Wallis). After dinner, Carl plays a composition of his own on the piano, mesmerizing Marianne. Ravna offers to send a coach and driver to secure petrol for the Harcourts; after the pair departs, Carl wonders why his father let them go. “I control when the petrol arrives,” he says.

Soon Carl and Sabena drive to the inn to ask the Harcourts to attend a ball they are planning. When Marianne protests that she has nothing to wear to such a formal occasion, Sabena says she will send one of her gowns and seamstress over that day. Professor Zimmer emerges and says cryptically that the day is growing brighter. The siblings run off, enter their carriage, and pull all the shades down. In the evening, as the Harcourts prepare to depart, Zimmer tells Marianne to be very careful. In time, she will learn why: Ravna gives her the vampire’s kiss and Gerald, awakening from being drugged, is told he never brought a wife with him to the party or, in fact, to the inn. Zimmer reveals what has happened to Marianne and tells Gerald of his long-simmering plan to destroy the vampires in the Ravna chateau. The two set out to rescue Marianne and accomplish Zimmer’s goal.

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What I really loved about The Kiss of the Vampire is that it dispenses with many of the conventions of vampire stories and sets Ravna up as a cult leader, rather reminiscent of The Seventh Victim (1943). When the Harcourts first come to dine, the veneer of civilization is firmly affixed to the rotted wood below. Carl plays a lovely piece by Schumann, which not only put Marianne at her ease, but also me. I felt I had entered the company of beautiful and civilized people who behaved beautifully. And even though I knew the worm would turn, it still gave me a shudder when it happened.

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The ball scene itself has a macabre gaiety with the men in grotesque masks and the dance floor emptied so that Carl and Marianne can dance themselves into a trance. When Gerald drinks his spiked champagne, de Souza creates a delirium that actually is quite believable. The attendees at the ball are all disciples who gather in white togas to welcome Marianne into their elite society at a ritual where I assume she will receive the final kiss of death from which she will awaken as a vampire.

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Willman, made up to look like Lee and Cushing as the standard-issue Hammer vampire, is adequate, as is the rest of the cast. Evans chews the scenery as Zimmer, particularly when he cauterizes a bite on the wrist he received from the innkeeper’s vampire daughter by holding it to an open flame. His conjuring spell to destroy the vampire cult isn’t done entirely by the book according to my pagan hubby, but close enough. The final destruction would have been much more effective if modern special effects had been available, but the concept of evil destroying evil is a good one.

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Most of all, I was very impressed with Daniel. She radiates a warmth and presence that anchors a film that could have descended into kitsch. Although she doesn’t act on her own behalf during the film, she never really seems like a stereotypical damsel in distress. There is something substantial about her throughout the film. She and de Souza have chemistry and make a rather striking couple.

If you’re new to Hammer, you’ll want to see the Lee and Cushing films. But definitely put The Kiss of the Vampire on your short list. It’s an intriguing, well-executed tale and among the best in the Hammer catalog.

  • Greg spoke:
    7th/04/2009 to 8:37 am

    I love watching so many Hammer films and they hold for me such a palpable sense of nostalgia that I don’t even look for quality or shoddiness one way or the other in them anymore. That doesn’t mean I don’t know which are good and which are bad, and I like this one, it’s just that my wife and I (and I’m so lucky to be with someone who feels the same way) use sixties Hammer and Corman horror films as a kind a celluloid comfort food. The brazenly false lighting and sets and garrish decors and actresses who never quite look the period and all of it that we are both so familiar with from our childhoods. Just looking at your screengrabs makes me feel good.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/04/2009 to 8:42 am

    Horror isn’t something I choose to view regularly, and I’m not as familiar with Hammer as many others, but it’s hard not to fall for films like these. They’re like reading a Wilkie Collins novel, with an almost naive sense of horror that I prefer to some of the souped-up stuff on the market these days. I just kind of stumbled onto this one, and believe it or not, the hubby hadn’t seen it either. We were both deeply impressed with it.

  • Greg spoke:
    7th/04/2009 to 12:35 pm

    They’re like reading a Wilkie Collins novel.
    My wife enjoys doing that too. Right now though she’s reading the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy Sayer. And enjoying them thoroughly.

  • Rick spoke:
    7th/04/2009 to 4:53 pm

    an almost naive sense of horror that I prefer to some of the souped-up stuff on the market these days
    My thoughts exactly … I have very little use for most modern horror. Give me Chris Lee biting an over-made-up neck any day.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/04/2009 to 7:37 am

    I enjoy some modern horror. I think we’ve had some pretty good ones come out of the gate, though not from Hollywood. Currently, I’m obsessed with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure. I think it’s the best horror film to come out in the past decade.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    9th/04/2009 to 3:38 pm

    Among the Hammer films, I would have to rate THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, VAMPIRE CIRCUS and the film that launched the series, Terrence Fischer’s DRACULA a.k.a. THE HORROR OF DRACULA above the film you so magnificently and exhaustively reviewed here. I must tell you I completely agree with you you on that cult leader parallel with Lewton’s THE SEVENTH VICTIM. And this is definitely an eerie and amospheric film that in that department ranks at the top of the Hammers, and the use of fog is arresting. But the absence and commanding presence of Christopher Lee here can’t be mitigated. I don’t know, the more I think about this film as I write this comment, the more I’m starting to think your placement of it near the top is warranted.
    Another great Hammer horror film that I neglected to mention is BRIDES OF DRACULA, which uses color perhaps better than any of them.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    9th/04/2009 to 3:44 pm

    Oh I just read your comments and I agree with you on Kurosawa’s CURE!!!
    By the way, his newest film TOKYO SONATA is marvelous, methinks.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/04/2009 to 3:58 pm

    Thanks for the recommendations, Sam, and for your general agreement with my assessment. I haven’t seen Tokyo Sonata, yet, but it is opening in town this week. I missed it at the CIFF, even given three opportunities, so I shall not mis it again.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    10th/04/2009 to 9:13 am

    I would also recommend one of the last Hammer productions, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter from 1974.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/04/2009 to 10:04 am

    Thanks, Peter. I’m glad there are so many Hammer experts around here. I’m certainly not one.

  • John Bender spoke:
    31st/12/2011 to 3:41 am

    Isobel Black in KISS OF THE VAMPIRE realized cinema’s all-time greatest female vampire. Her raven tresses, flawless white skin, beautiful cold eyes (leering lasciviously), luscious lip slithering and curling like a snake over her fangs – and almost best of all her fearsomely, erotically flaring nostrils all compile to supply her with the most potent example of feminine blood lust to be found on film. As a vampire Isobel was a goddess – unsurpassed and unforgettable. How superb that the film she inhabits also happens to be one of the greatest vampire films ever made! I love it!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/12/2011 to 8:54 am

    John – Thanks for stopping by and sharing your, um, appreciation of Isobel Black with us!

  • John Bender spoke:
    1st/01/2012 to 3:55 pm

    No “ums” about it my dear Marilyn! And if anybody has an alternate candidate for Queen of the Cinematic Vampires have a go! As for me I’m also a pretty big fan of Delphine Seyrig (DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS), Maribel Martin (BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE), the Collinson twins (TWINS OF EVIL) and of course Marianne Morris and Anulka (VAMPYRES). There are other fine examples but I still find Isobel to have walked into her role as a vampiress with dead-on characteristics and personality traits already intrenched as intimate mannerisms and physical quirks – she was pre-armed to act out as one of the undead. I’ve caught her in episodes of THE SAINT and SECRET AGENT and she STILL comes off as if she might be on the verge of biting Roger Moore on the neck. It’s a phenomenon!

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