Director: Don Sharp
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.