In Defense of GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE

ON

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Australian horror journo and author Lee Gambin goes to bat for the battiest of all vampire movies: GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE.

There is something so incredibly appealing about vampire films from the seventies that have nothing whatsoever to do with the infamous and exceptionally popular (as he should be) Count Dracula. This is in no way a slur against our beloved literary prince of darkness; but instead, it simply means that there are other features that ventured into vampiric terrain during the grittiest period of cinematic decades that boast original and sometimes innovative bloodsucker outings. When American International Pictures released the subversively provocative and proudly lurid COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE in 1970, audiences thrilled to a lusty feral vampire played by Robert Quarry who built an army of devoted female disciples (one of which feasted upon a cat in one of the film’s most memorable and controversial scenes). The film was originally intended as a softcore sexploitation film (some prints of the film would feature it’s originally intended name as the title card), but Quarry insisted that AIP stick to a straight and narrow vampire feature that would embrace seventies newfound anti-glamour sensibilities. The result was a profoundly disturbing and entertaining horror classic. Following hot off YORGA’s success was GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE, directed by exploitation maestro John Hayes and loosely based on the David Chase novel “The Still Life”.

In this grisly, bleak piece, Michael Pataki plays the role of century old vampire Caleb Croft like a brutish thug, picking up his victims by the scruff of the neck and tossing them onto a pile of dirt with swift ease, moments before holding them up over his shoulder and slamming them down onto a dense cement gravestone breaking their back. The final insult is that this cretin lunges upon them and rips into their flesh feasting upon their fresh oozing blood. Pataki’s vampire has not one iota of glamour or charm, instead he is presented as a lumbering menace, which is not only refreshing and downright scary, but also satisfying to watch. In many ways a lot of Pataki’s physicality resembles Paul Naschy, that iconic Spanish cinematic lycanthrope who made a career out of fevered and frenzied performances in the lavish Hombre Lobo films from the sixties, seventies and early eighties. In comparison, Pataki jolts and bolts through each scene with a maddening intensity much like Naschy in his werewolf state, throwing his body around in an ecstatic and hedonistic manner – linking Pataki to Naschy’s bestial out-pour.

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GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE gives Pataki a lot of well-deserved room to be that maniacal menace with a heavy hand, and it is only in the second half of the feature, where his character has to “fit in” and “pass” as innocuous, that Pataki is allowed to reign in his larger than life ruthlessness and channel a different kind of threat. He is supported by a collective of sturdy actors, some there to serve genuine narrative purpose and others rendered loose-ends that succumb to a nasty demise even though they seem to be set up as mainstays. For example, the character of the lieutenant (Eric Mason) somehow represents a bizarre red herring. We are lead to believe that this character will be a Van Helsing of sorts, set to destroy Pataki’s Croft, however, early in the piece he is killed. The death of the lieutenant is gruesome and shocking. His body is smashed into the side of an open coffin by Croft and then his head is left to rest at the place of where the lid would shut tight. With a mighty blow, Croft drops the coffin’s heavy lid onto the lieutenant’s head and the sound of a crushing skull stabs the sound design. In a strangely homoerotic tail-end to the scene, Pataki rips open the handsome law enforcer’s shirt and dives in, ripping open his flesh and drinking his blood.

Before this entertaining sequence, we have been introduced to the lieutenant and get the impression that he suspects vampirism from the get-go (he even has a skeptical co-worker cynically remark “And then runs off into the sunrise like Bela Lugosi!” – which is a nice play on post-modern horror, where the characters in the film already understand what vampires are about, and that films about such mythical monsters exist, starring the likes of Hungarian imitable actors). Another first act character that is established, given purpose but then tossed to the sidelines is abuse victim Olga (Lieux Dressler), who is another bizarre addition to the film. Olga is introduced in the hospital where our initial heroine Lesley (played by Kitty Vallacher who somehow tries to channel a neurotic Sandy Dennis in her performance, and also billed as “The Unwilling Mother”) is recovering from being raped by Croft. This frazzled older woman takes an instant shine to our vulnerable leading lady, plus there is also a subdued hint of lesbianism here, as Olga caresses Lesley’s quivering hand and aggressively asserts herself as Leslie’s “protector”.

The theme of rape and the repercussions of rape permeate the film which makes GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE an interesting example of vampire-centric cinema predating compelling and gritty rape-centric movies such as RAPE SQUAD and DEATH WISH (both from 1974). Even hearing the word uttered on multiple occasions makes for a seedy excursion into the vampire sub-genre. Rape-centric cinema was of course no stranger on the grindhouse circuit of the early seventies, however when it is introduced to a film about bloodsuckers (a movie monster that is already seemingly “old hat” by the time of 1972) it somehow “frightens the horses”. This said, the film bears a semblance to the European horror/psychological character study of Werewolf Woman (1976), a phenomenal film that successfully marries the rape-revenge motif with the legend of lycanthropy. GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE dances with the notion of rape, but then fixes it’s focus on the concept of vampiric conception – Lesley, this fragile “unwilling mother” falls pregnant to the undead Croft (something that seldom happens in cinematic vampire logic). The film plays with the rules of vampirism – most notably that if Caleb Croft bites his victims they don’t turn into vampires, instead, this ancient and powerful undead only really births another vampire through raping Lesley in the open grave in the beginning of the picture.

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The image of Lesley cutting into her breast and drawing blood to feed her vampiric baby is what gave the film its notoriety and cult status (plus it also inspired a pre-feature warning). It is a striking image that perverts the holy bond shared between mother and child, and here this loving and essential act is completely misshaped as the natural maternal/infant unity is turned into something grotesque and demonic. The extreme close-up of the grey/bluish baby lapping up the fresh droplets of blood that fall onto his face is quite simply a nightmarish vision of unnatural monstrousness. On top of this unsettling image comes Lesley’s creepy lullaby where she sings “When you wake you shall have all the pretty little horses….” The fleeting moments with mother and vampire baby are undeniably compelling and eerie, and a dose of visceral bloodletting gives it the punch it needs. For example, Lesley takes a large syringe to her arm and withdraws her own blood to feed her son. This lingering image gives the movie a much welcomed queasiness that is appealing in the most down and dirty grindhouse-fevered sense. Dark humor is also infused within the lively dialogue – Olga asks about the young half-vampire half-mortal baby: “Why is he so grey? I’ve never seen a baby with this color before?”

The second half of the film changes it’s mood – and bloodsucking babies are sent on their merry way as cultists and occultism (a very popular trend in horror cinema at the time) picks up where we leave an infantile son of Croft, James Eastman. Playing the adult Eastman is the wonderful as character actor William Smith, however even with his hulking presence that made him a go-to heavy for other motion pictures and television of the time, he doesn’t seem to have the same intensity that Pataki has and because of this, the latter half of the picture staggers a tad – but only a tad. Thankfully, Pataki returns to the screen and now in an urbane and semi-sophisticated turn, where he poses as a professor at a local college. Muscular and stoic William Smith spends his time on screen wanting to track down his father while using women that work at the college to help him find out more about their elusive boss. Smith’s Eastman knows that Croft is his father – but this is something that he chooses to out just when the time is right. Eastman has also spent his entire life repressing his vampiric self, however elements of his hidden desires pop up throughout the film and prove rather humorous. When a female associate at the college comes over for a drink at Eastman’s house, she notices blood-red raw meat on a plate to which she asks “Do you have a dog or a cat?” to which he replies “The meat is mine”. We get the idea that this man is trying to suppress his urges by letting the blood from a steak assuage his lust, rather than surrender to the pleasures of human blood.

The film takes its time with lingering mood-pieces and visually engaging story-servers, such as the elongated moment where Eastman struggles to give in to his budding vampiric desires when his pick up is lying asleep underneath him, with the veins in her throat pulsating and throbbing. Eastman runs his fingers over these vessels blood, and distracts himself. But by the end of the film, Smith’s Eastman submits to his vampiric self and bares his elongated fangs while a title card reads: “The End! Or is it…?”

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The film is ultimately, exploitation bliss. The varied versions of the film with alternate cuts make for this to be one of those films that is seldom seen in its entirety. An uncut version has yet to surface, and the best print available for the film is made available on DVD through a company called Retromedia who have saved the original format and cleaned it up to the best they could, however this is once again another modified version – most notably cuts made during the baby blood feeding sequence, an elongated shot of Croft coming into extreme close-up baring his fangs and being blurred into obscurity, as well as endless stagnant shots of characters “deep in thought” or “scrutinizing situations at hand” – with these missing in action it is completely forgivable seeing that they bog the pace down and offer nothing but muted moments in an almost endlessly action-heavy horror film. And “action” is the key word. By the end of the picture, when father and son duke it out and come face to face with one another beating up on each other and throwing each other across the room, the film shifts into a fists of fury scenario that could match the likes of any Burt Reynolds action movie released around the same time. William Smith is most certainly an action star prototype – a man with few words, muscular and impressive in size and stature and boasting alpha appeal both for the male contingent and female. A truly stoic figure in his concentrated approach, the actor makes some of the flat dialogue engaging by giving it a grounded sense of realism. When we first meet him he speaks in voice over, giving us necessary exposition (something that could have been accomplished without such overstatement, however does seem to work here) about his mother’s death and denial of her son’s hybrid vampirism, and here we get a sense that perhaps this character (the new protagonist for the second half of the film) might hold onto his noir-esque inner-narration, serving as an internalised Greek-chorus which might give the film an altered sense of dreamscape in rudimentary grit. However, this dies with the image of his mother dead in her coffin.

GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE is worth it for many reasons – namely Pataki’s incredibly menacing and brutish performance, the infamous baby blood splattered close-up and the odd choices in setting up character and plot and aggressively dismissing it while keeping entertainment levels at an all time high. Besides the first half being stronger than the occult heavy second, the picture has a mesmerizing stride and energy and truly is one of the best vampire movies of the early seventies.

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Weekend: Feb. 27, 2020, Mar. 1, 2020

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