Thursday, December 10, 2009

Kiss of the Vampire

Kiss of the Vampire

Hammer, 1963 Video Available from MCA/Universal Hammer Horror Collection

Producer: Anthony Hinds
Director: Don Sharp
Screenplay: Anthony Hinds (as "John Elder")

Cast: Professor Zimmer: Clifford Evans
Dr. Ravna: Noel Willman
Gerald Harcourt: Edward de Souza
Marianne Harcourt: Jennifer Daniel
Carl Ravna: Barry Warren
Sabena Ravna: Jacquie Wallis
Tania: Isobel Black
Bruno:Peter Madden
Anna: Vera Cook
Between 1958's Dracula and Christopher Lee's return to the vampire role in the 1965 film Dracula-Prince of Darkness, Hammer turned out a pair of films that served to fill out the rules of vampirism in the Hammerscape and more fully laid out the themes that would be essayed over and over for the rest of Hammer's run. These two films were Brides Of Dracula (1960) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963), both of which have been released to video by MCA and make for an entertaining double-feature.

Kiss of the Vampire is distilled Hammer, and almost benefits from the lack of Hammer's two chief stars Cushing and Lee: a heretical thought to some, perhaps, but true, I feel. With Kiss of the Vampire one sees that Van Helsing and Dracula were borne of this strange Hammerscape, and not vice-versa. Sometimes Hammer was so overwhelmed by having to decide what to do with mammoth talent like Cushing and Lee that they missed the smaller touches that really drive these film; Kiss of the Vamp; is all small touches, like the slightly better (for Cushing's presence, of course) Brides of Dracula. And what touches they are.

The plot, in brief, almost.

There's a lot of story here, probably more than a 90-minute affair can handle, but let me gloss the plot as briefly as possible while hitting the salient points, for those who haven't seen it (if you have, then just skip on down to the next section):

Young honeymooners Gerald and Marianne Harcourt run out of gas in a vaguely eastern-European corner of the Hammerscape. After being spied upon by a mysterious nobleman from a high chateau, the pair find refuge in the poorly named Grand Hotel, a deserted inn with one other patron- a sad and drunken professor named Zimmer. Bruno, the innkeeper, and his wife Anna, are an eager but sad pair with a Terrible Secret. Soon, Dr. Ravna, the noble who spied upon them earlier, sends a letter asking that the young couple join him for dinner. Urged by the innkeeper to do so, the Harcourts comply, and are met at the chateau by Dr. Ravna and his children, dashing Carl and exquisitely lovely Sabena.

Meanwhile, lurking in the background is a dusky and sensual woman named Tania who sneaks out to a fresh grave, hoping to raise another vampire. She is interrupted by Professor Zimmer, the lodger, who chases her away but receives a nasty bite on the hand, which he immediately treats. Back at the chateau, the Harcourts are treated to Carl Ravna's lovely piano playing, and as he plays, Marianne is swayed to the point of fainting by the music. When the Harcourts call it a night, the Ravnas invite them back for a masquerade ball.

The pair attend the ball, an elaborate affair in which every single masked member is in fact a member of Ravna's vampire cult. Marianne and Carl dance while Gerald is led off by Sabena, who promptly drugs him and tosses him aside. Marianne is led upstairs by Carl and seduced (vampirized) by Dr. Ravna. When Gerald rises the following morning his wife is denied him, and everyone from the Ravnas to the innkeepers insist that he has always been alone; there was no Marianne. Luckily, Professor Zimmer is onto the plot, having lost his own daughter to the Ravnas' cult. He leads and assault on the chateau, and once they whisk Marianne back, the good men trap the vampires inside the chateau. While Gerald tries to keep Marianne from running back to Dr. Ravna, Professor Zimmer uses a diabolical spell on the cult, sending the minions of evil- vampire bats- to destroy the vampire cult. (Whew.)

There. Now lets all pretend we've seen it so we can get to...

Hammer Themes from Kiss of the Vampire

Vampirism as Sexual Decadence:

# In Kiss of the Vampire, vampirism is directly related to sexual depravity, decadence and disease. Professor Zimmer opens the movie by plunging a shovel through his own departed daughter's coffin, severing her head in a shocking pre-credit teaser. We find out later why he has been reduced to this: Zimmer's daughter ran off to the big city, where she fell in with "the so-called smart set.... When she returned, she was riddled with disease: and she was a vampire." But Zimmer goes on to explain his theory of what's going on in vampirism: the vampire, once afflicted, can either turn to God and confess her sins, or she will "convince herself" that she has discovered a new way of life, and will try to win others over to her "perversion."

# In Horror of Dracula, Christopher Lee was a predator charged with victim-fantasy eroticism; Kiss of the Vampire contains a different, competing theory of vampire eroticism. Here, vampirism is a tempting fruit that will distance the convert from her home and God -- not due to the hypnotic attack of a powerful vampire lord like Dracul -- but through the cool, sensual embrace of a convincing vampire proselytizer.

# Consider this: Noel Willman's Dr. Ravna is a bit of a snob, but he's also the leader of a vampire cult, the acolytes of which are descending for what seems to be some sort of conference (very like the one seen in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, by the way.) He and his children spot Marianne and immediately want her to join them. The result is really a sort of argument between our cult and theirs: vampirism in this movie doesn't really do anything to you except seduce you and turn you against your previous non-vampire friends. (I recognize, by the way, that it does kill you, but that doesn't seem to bother the vampires, after all, so who are we to judge?) As it is, the only reason we as the audience know to root for Dr. Zimmer's destruction of the cult is because the film follows him.

# But consider even more: the scene in which Carl Ravna plays piano for Marianne is an amazing and perverse piece of work. Marianne is seated by the piano as Carl plays. Her husband lingers by the window, not paying attention; Carl's sister stands beside him and Dr. Ravna lingers over the lot of them. All eyes are on Marianne as she heaves her breasts and flushes deeply, captivated by the music to the point of fainting. Husband Harcourt notices this and immediately rushes to her aid, at which Carl stops playing, and Marianne breathlessly urges, "don't stop!" At this point everyone says goodnight. Harcourt ushers his wife to the cab, and we are now completely aware that this buttoned-up woman is stuck in a marriage to a man who wouldn't know sexual arousal from a case of the mumps.

# Later, when Marianne spits in Harcourt's face, we are horrified by the betrayal. But Kiss of the Vampire makes a careful case for the vampires before deciding against them, and nothing is simple. Harcourt kidnaps Marianne back and basically deprograms her, but we never do learn if she would have been happier with the vampires. Noone asks.

# It's interesting to contrast Kiss of the Vampire with later Hammers like Lust for a Vampire. The lovely Jennifer Daniel must convey a charged eroticism by flushing her cheeks, and she does so with maddening effectiveness. I have no objection to nudity in eroticism (I have no objection to anything if it effectively helps the story), but its worth watching a director and actress rely on acting and imagination.

# I love the confusion of this movie. Evil in Kiss of the Vampiremust be punished, but there's a lot to indicate that at least we acknowledge that evil is tempting and often attractive. My comments above suggest a relativist approach, but it's no secret that the movie is on the side of the loser asexual husband and the vampire-hating drunk professor, who want their woman back.

All of this is to point up the distinction between the confusion of the sixties and the lush vacuum of Interview with the Vampire, a sort of vampire noir where anyone who doesn't think vampirism is the greatest, like vampire Louis, is basically a weenie. Anne Rice's vampires finally said, why beat around the bush? The vampires aren't evil, so why pretend we think they are: why not just make it sexy and go all the way? In Rice, the vampires are the heroes, and we follow them as they learn to embrace their immortal coolness.

Frankly, though, it was more interesting when we seemed torn about it all. It's more interesting in a world where choosing between Van Helsing and the vampire (as is the choice to be made in Brides of Dracula) is a real dilemma, rather than one where Van Helsing is regarded as silly. Stack the odds, open with a conclusion, and there's really nowhere to go. A little confusion can go along way (perhaps the reason for our continued love affair with the 1960s).

A final note: fans of the Hammerscape will be thrilled to see all the usual standbys, especially the "safe place," here represented by the hotel and bar around which much of the plot centers. In the Hammerscape there will always be a tavern that almost every character makes his or her way through sooner or later.

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