Sunday, June 01, 2008

Grave of the Vampire – review

Director: John Hayes

Release date: 1972

Contains spoilers

Grave of the Vampire was penned by David Chase, who also worked on Kolchak: The Night Stalker (actually writing the episode Vampire) and brought us The Sopranos. Allegedly based on a novel “The Still Life” that he wrote (though I can find absolutely no trace of that). With such a pedigree it should be really good…

Well, before I look into in more depth let me just say that some crummy acting and a really bad print just cannot keep a good story down. Seriously though, the Vipco DVD claims this is a digitally remastered version – if so I’d hate to see the un-mastered print.

The film starts in a graveyard and we see the lid of a tomb, adorned with the name Croft, begin to shift. Cut to a party and a couple Paul (Jay Scott) and Leslie (Kitty Vallacher) leave in a car. They drive to the graveyard – as you do. There is some teasing and then Paul asks her to marry him. She accepts and they get in the car for some smoochy backseat action. Just a thought… with a jumper like the one that Paul is wearing, well he simply deserves to die.

The tomb opens and we see Caleb Croft (Michael Pataki). This was wonderful, he is wrinkled, decayed and insects crawl across him. He seems to move slowly, one might even say zombie like. However, the fact that, once sat up, he looks to his hands indicates some degree of sentience that a zombie shouldn’t have. He gets to the car, looks in and rips the door off.

The brutality of the following scene cannot be underestimated. The atmosphere drawn around us might be gothic but there is no romanticism. Croft pulls Paul from the car and throws him around, violently, until lifting him and smashing his back across the top of a gravestone. Then he feeds. Her scream causes Croft to then turn his attention to Leslie. He drags her into an open grave. We see, in a blue tinted shot, him run into a cellar to hide from the approaching sun.

The cops, Lt. Panzer (Eric Mason) and Sgt Duffy (William Ghul), are at the hospital. First of all they question a bum, Zack (Jay Adler), who saw a man run out of the graveyard and then found Paul and Leslie. Panzer has a suspicion; after all he has a dead guy drained of blood, a raped girl and a missing corpse. He shows Leslie a series of photos and then adds in one of Croft – she reacts.

He explains to Duffy that the picture was of a man arrested three years before. He escaped, fell onto the power line of train tracks and was shipped home for burial – it was his corpse that was missing. Duffy isn’t buying it. Why Croft has been out of commission for three years and what woke him at that moment is, frustratingly, never answered. We do see Croft attack a woman in the cellar, his attack is again brutal (though the camera keeps a subtle line above the gore).

Leslie is leaving the hospital with fellow patient Olga (Lieux Dressler). The doctor speaks to her and tells her she is pregnant but the foetus is dead. We realise it is the vampire’s baby but she insists it is Paul’s. The doctor wants her to have an abortion but she refuses. She gives birth (nine months later, presumably) with Olga acting as midwife. The baby is alive but grey and won’t feed. However she accidentally cuts her finger and the baby takes the blood, so she cuts her breast to nurse. The scene of her nursing, singing a nursery rhyme, is wonderfully eerie.

The child grows, though we see him stood in shadow whilst other children play in the sun, and we move forward to James Eastman (William Smith), as he now calls himself, as a man. Leslie is dead and he is searching for his father, in order to get revenge. How old he is now is anyone’s guess, Leslie looked aged in the coffin but he says he drained her by his existence, later a mention of being in his 20s is made but the time frame seems to have jumped between 20-40 years. He ends up taking night classes with one Professor Lockwood – Croft, using colleges as a base to find fresh blood.

Thrown into the mix are Anita (Diane Holden) and Anne (Lyne Peters), roommates and also in the class. We hear more of Croft, how he was originally called Charles Croydon, an Englishman from the 17th Century who moved, with his wife Sarah, to Salem. She was burnt alive as a vampire – though he was never caught. Anne bears an uncanny resemblance to Sarah and that attracts Croft, but she is becoming involved with James.

Lore wise things are sparing, subtly done even. We never see Croft in daylight, wooden stakes are mentioned and so are crosses. The cross comment is an amusing take on the comparative religion dilemma. A student who believes in vampires, Carol Moskowitz (Abbi Henderson), has the cross. She makes comment about who would think she (with a Jewish name) would carry a cross.

More interestingly, Anita actually wants to be a vampire and begs Croft to turn her. This is interesting as she mentions an exchange of blood but then goes on to say that the magic that would ultimately turn her would work as she bathed in the light of the full moon. The connection between vampires and the moon is exemplified in Polidori’s The Vampyre but not often used in more modern lore. We can throw in séances and spirit possession as additional, not vampiric, lore used.

Of course the main thrust of lore is concerning the dhampir – the half vampire half human, though the term dhampir is never actually used. We do not learn too much about James. He seems to have his bloodlust under control, we see him look longingly at Anne’s pulse but he simply kisses it, and he eats raw steak. He can go out in sunlight; though as mentioned shade is preferred. The wonderfully dour ending has a twist that is more interesting when looked at with regards dhampirs, but I won’t spoil it.

Acting wise Smith is stoic as James – and this works. Pataki is fantastic as Croft; he carries an air of menace and an undertow of malevolent violence that is forever pushing at the refined surface. Think Count Yorga but with a palpable intimidating air. Why, then, Pataki was so cheesy in Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, in which he played Dracula, is beyond me. The rest of the acting, to be candid, is awful.

The soundtrack is cheesy throughout and the scenes when James attends a party thrown by Anita were worryingly reminiscent of Dracula AD 1972 - which is no good thing.

Yet the story, the hints of lore, the subtle and yet palpable brutality and Pataki’s performance raise this film up into a flawed gem. A proper remaster might help but, and I am usually loathe to suggest this, what this film needs is a competent remake with decent actors throughout (and a proper explanation of time lines might be useful also). Even so, it is an enjoyable experience and deserves 6 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


The T said...

James is also quite a horrendous wooden actor. The only good performance here is Pataki's. But the film has a lot of good things going for it. Yes, my dvd copy was also atrocious, but I don't know about you, looking at the film like this adds to the creepyness (incredibly, not to the crapiness). All in all, I enjoyed it a lot. Good recommendation

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi The T. I think I was trying to be kind when I called James stoic - you could read that as wooden! But there is something about this. Cheers for the comment.

House of Karnstein said...

The only way to see this one 100% fully uncut is by tracking down the ultra rare German Loyal Pal vhs
tape. All other versions available are either the PG edit, or even worse, tv edit! Even the fairly recent so-called MGM remaster that was shown on American television is cut and nothing more than the PG version, not to mention it even still had that bland washed-out look. The German Loyal vhs has wonderful European-like colours and features the "R" rated version. The two most memorable scenes (that come to mind) present in the Loyal tape & cut/missing from other PG prints are THE two best & most powerful vampy scenes in the whole film. One has Croft licking the blood off of a woman's face after a kill (truly disturbing!), another has him drinking from the wrist of a victim in a much longer sequence than the PG versions (which feature a quick edit, if I remember correctly). Grave of the Vampire is a little low budget gem of a vamper that I first saw at the drive-in many many years ago, with my pops. I actually like this film more than either of the Yorga's which it often gets compared to. I'd probably have to give GOTV 7 out of 10 fangs! : )

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cheers for the info HofK. Surely someone will end up releasing this in its unadultered glory, on shiny disc?

I must admit I don't rate the Yorga films as highly as others do. This is a better flick imho, though I do take The T's comment on James' acting (stoic or wooden, you decide!) into acoount the story is still marvellous and Pataki makes the film

House of Karnstein said...

I forgot to mention the scene of Croft scooping up a handful of blood from a victim and bringing it to his mouth. This sequence is also missing from most PG prints. Yeah, I would love to see a company out there do this one up right. I'm keeping my long clawed-fingers crossed! :)