Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cave of the Living Dead – review

Directed by: Ákos Ráthonyi

Release Date: 1964

Contains spoilers

I love it when a film with the term ‘living dead’ in the title is a vampire flick, it certainly adds a soupçon of confusion to the genre as the phrase is now synonymous with zombies. Nevertheless this is a vampire film and a bit of an odd one at that. Some awful dubbed dialogue probably doesn’t help a film that mixes the supernatural with the detective genre and throws some off kilter humour in for good measure.

There is also one of the most strange additions to vampire lore that I have come across – more suited to another genre (though not when the film was made per se) and virtually unexplained, but we’ll get to that momentarily.

Things start in a bar and a man, Frank Dorin (Adrian Hoven), looks at a pair of legs and tries to refuse a phone call. He is a cop and he tries to refuse the case phoned through – he’s meant to be going on vacation. No such luck. A boat trip later and he is being sent to a village where six women have died in six months. All aged between 18 and 22, there is no sign of foul play and no connection between the victims. There is a famous grotto near the village and so Frank is given an infra-red viewer and papers for the local police, though he is going undercover as a tourist.

In the village inn, innkeeper Stefan is getting fruity with the maid Maria (Erika Remberg), during which he breaks the chain of the crucifix round her neck. She goes to bed, leaving the randy innkeeper to his wine. Frank arrives on the outskirts of the village, pulls over and checks a map. Suddenly the radio and engine cut out and his torch fails. Let us look at the blackout.

The supernatural and energy drains are sometimes used together, but the effects tend to be localised. In this case, when the vampires prowl every electrical object in the village fails. It is something more akin to the UFO genre – especially as the car fails – but is obviously tied into black magic here. Trouble is, it isn’t well explained as a piece of lore – it just happens. When the blackouts occur the dogs of the village howl.

Frank is approached and pulls a gun, but it is a woman, Karin (Karin Field). She explains that she is an assistant to Professor von Adelsberg (Wolfgang Preiss) up at the castle. She shows Frank the way to the inn. Meanwhile we see a shadow creeping through the town, long nailed fingers push at a window and a figure in black stoop over Maria.

Frank is shown to a room by the innkeeper, he tells Frank that the grotto is haunted by vampires. We see a creepy guy, Thomas the deaf one (Emmerich Schrenk), follow Karin but run off when he sees the castle butler John (John Kitzmiller) – who has waited for Karin and believes the castle to be evil. The village lights come back on – power returning to Frank’s car. Thomas steals the infra red viewer from the back seat.

Frank is awoken by an insistent knocking at the door, it is the police. They enter with gun out and – in a moment of machismo, Frank knocks the gun from a constable’s hand, pulls his own gun and shows them his papers. He goes to see the body of Maria and the village doctor (Carl Möhner) says death was caused by heart failure (just like the other girls). Frank asks about the punctures on the neck and the doctor dismisses them as superficial scratches.

Frank goes, at Stefan’s urging, to see the village witch, Nanny. She says that he is the one and then says that the vampires were forced into the grotto 200 years ago by a curse but emerge at the stroke of midnight for 59 minutes. She puts a cross round his neck and gives him herbs that, if put on a fresh vampire bite, will restore a victim to humanity.

She warns him not to take the cross off and states that they will try to entice him to remove it. Throwing something into the flames she shows him how and we see dancing female figures. Getting back to the inn Frank is met by John and asked to stay at the castle. Frank then discovers that the professor moved in 6 months ago, claiming to be the rightful owner.

Before moving he decides to check the grotto. On route John steps out and offers to go with him. The Professor realises that John is with Frank and that he is in danger, he enters a ritual room (carrying what seems to be a fetish doll, but that doesn’t come into the film at all), lighting candles with a wave of the hand and trying to communicate with his butler.

John’s presence in the film serves to attract dialogue that, today, is somewhat unsettling. He is clearly a suspect as he works for the Professor, though in this scene he actively saves Frank’s life by pulling him from the path of a falling stalactite. However to the village he is a suspect because of his skin colour. In this scene he asks Frank if vampires like black blood and Frank replies he doesn’t know but he does like his black skin. One feels the attempt was to be pro-diversity, as Frank trusts John, but the dialogue was ham-fisted. That said all the dialogue was ham-fisted in one way or another.

Frank is packing but, before going to the castle, he looks in on Maria’s body. As he leaves the room she breathes and opens her eyes, her smile revealing fangs. When he returns, with the doctor in tow to take a blood sample, she has gone. The doctor is now convinced there is a murderer and the body has been stolen to prevent the blood test.

Despite throwing in red herring suspects – John, who is oblivious to his employer’s activities and Thomas, who wanders around acting creepy and bigoted (in another unsettling piece of dialogue we discover that he is not of sound mind as he is deaf!) – we know from the get go that the vampire is the Professor. His character steals a lot from Dracula. His greeting when Frank arrives is reminiscent of the Count to Harker – Frank notes his cold hands. He smashes a mirror and talks about vanity. He has locked rooms in his castle – this time because they contain his labs, it seems, where he carries out blood experiments.

We get other vampire lore thrown in. The vampires are very strong – we see Maria lift and throw a boulder. It seems they can dematerialise – though we do not see it. They are dormant during the day, or at least the female ones are. Their blood is poisonous – I mean kill you stone dead rather than turn you into a vampire poisonous – a bite is needed to turn.

Nanny explains that they cannot be killed but they can be destroyed. A stake through the heart (and three strikes of the mallet) will do it. Kill the head vampire and the brides die automatically. When Frank does the deed – well you knew he would – each strike leads to the vampire being a stage further decayed. At the end he explodes into flames.

The humour is slightly off-kilter, as I mentioned, full of bungling characters and a Lothario lead. It doesn’t work brilliantly, but this might be due to the poor dubbing and translated dialogue. That said there is something pleasingly groovy, despite the uncomfortable moments, about the film – perhaps due to the swing jazz soundtrack. There is little atmosphere, possibly due to the soundtrack again and also possibly because of the countless red herrings that don’t work as we know who the baddy is from the moment a Professor in the castle is mentioned. Certainly it fails next to some contemporary European offerings.

4 out of 10, for a slightly worthy, ultimately flawed, flick with some really unusual lore but, at the end of the day, a storyline that is way too familiar to many another movie.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

This is my type of vampire film really. I ave never seen it, but it looks like great eurosleaze in b/w yet. Almost the look of an old Barbara Steele type film. I wanna see it!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Bill, I can see what you mean. Not as accomplished as many of the Steele films but worth an eye on

Anonymous said...

Regarding: "I love it when a film with the term ‘living dead’ in the title is a vampire flick, it certainly adds a soupçon of confusion to the genre as the phrase is now synonymous with zombies."

There are two things of note, here.

Firstly, "zombies" have popularly been associated with the term since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which was released four years after this movie.

Second, J. Scoffern wrote the following in Stray Leaves of Science and Folklore (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1870):

"A vampire, then, is—well, what shall we say? Not a ghost, certainly; except we alter most of our existing notions of a ghost. The best definition I can give of a vampire is a living, mischievous, and murderous dead body. A living dead body! The words are wild, contradictory, incomprehensible; but so are vampires." (p. 350)

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Anthony, you are, of course, correct with the time line and the source... however, that isn't the point and perhaps I was a little too vague.

I am, of course, talking about popular conception of what living dead refers to in a movie - which traces itself to Romero. That said, as I know you know, the word zombie isn't even used in Night of the Living Dead, instead the word ghoul is used.

I enjoy the popularist conceptions and I probably should have made that clear.

Re the Scoffern quote, this is before Dracula and thus the term Undead hasn't been coined, which was a much better describe, imho, and another one pinched by the zombie genre!

However, as always, many thanks for the input - it is always a pleasure to hear from you.