Monday, November 16, 2009

Wendigo Meets THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963)

"W hen the devil attacks a man or woman with the foul disease of the vampire, the unfortunate human being can do one of two things. Either he can seek God or the church and pray for absolution, or he can persuade himself that his filthy perversion is some kind of new and wonderful experience shared by the favored few and try to persuade others to join his new cult."

Actually my friend Wendigo the vampire cinema buff isn't meeting Don Sharp's Hammer film for the first time. But he mentioned it when I asked him for a short list of films he wanted to review for my regular vampire feature, and I chose it from his list because I only recall seeing it once before and I remembered little of it apart from the famous mass bat-attack finish. Wendigo wanted to give it a fresh look because he felt that it took a unique approach that also followed up on hints laid in Hammer's first Dracula films.

In Horror of Dracula the master vampire is identified as the head of a "cult" of vampires. The cult is mentioned in the sequel, Brides of Dracula, both in the narrator's introduction and in the account of one victim's mother. Kiss of the Vampire isn't really related to the previous films, dispensing with the services of both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, except for being the fullest exploration of the "cult of the vampires" idea. It's arguably ahead of its time in its concern with cults, which seems like more of a Seventies thing, and indeed that decade would see vampire cults in Deathmaster and Hammer's own Satanic Rites of Dracula.

Above, Noel Williamson as Dr. Ravna. Below, the master calms his flock.

Wendigo finds the "cult" idea an interesting approach to vampirism that isn't done very often. He finds it a compelling alternative to the contagion scenarios and the Dune/Godfather template of clans or "families" that prevail today. It's one approach that gives precedence to the old school master vampire because cults are often all about patriarchal power. That's true in Kiss, where the fantasy of one man's patriarchal dominance is twinned with a shuddersome male nightmare of inadequacy and emasculation.

After a pre-credits sequence that introduces the menacing figure of this film's vampire hunter, Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), in the act of staking a fresh vampire with a shovel through her wooden coffin lid on the day of her funeral, we get a telescope's view of honeymooning English tourists, Gerald and Marianne Harcourt (Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel), puttering in their automobile through the early 20th century German landscape. When the auto breaks down, Gerald leaves Marianne with the car as he tromps off in search of petrol. Spooked by her isolation, Marianne heads down the road herself, only to be warned back to the auto by Zimmer. Eventually the Harcourts get towed to a guest house, only to receive almost immediately an invitation to dine with the local aristocrat, Dr. Ravna.

Jennifer Daniel (masked and in red, center) flanked by vampires masking their true nature.

Ravna is an aesthete ("I like only to be surrounded by beautiful ... things.") and his son Karl is a talented pianist. Marianne is mesmerized by his virtuosity performing what sounds like an original Baron Latos composition; it's as if she's being transported to a strange twilight world where the people are...but Gerald breaks the spell, thinking that Marianne was taking ill. They're invited back for a costume party that's a setup to separate the couple so Marianne can be recruited into the Cult of the Vampires, whle Gerald is ... well, who cares? Ravna and his people don't, and their initial disinterest in recruiting him (until he knows too much and they have no choice) really enhances the male-nightmare aspect of this story. The Cult would rather psyche him out by hinting that Marianne was nothing but a figment of his drunken imagination. People of the village are complicit in Ravna's games, except for Professor Zimmer, who's working up an eldritch assault on the monsters who destroyed his daughter -- or forced him to, depending on how you look at it.

Gerald gets it -- finally!

Wendigo sees Gerald Harcourt as a stand-in for all kinds of male anxieties. He is cuckolded on his honeymoon, fulfilling many a young man's nightmare of not being able to satisfy a woman or command her fidelity. Part of the nightmare is that, in part, it's your own fault. You can see what's going to happen when Gerald persists in his clueless calisthenics while Marianne wants to throw herself at him. He undergoes a kind of emasculation, overpowered by an older man and sexualized females ("vamps," indeed) to the point where his identity as a man (his marriage) is questioned. His masculinity is further undermined by the Cult's initial unwillingness to recruit him. It's one thing to learn that your wife has fallen in with some deviant cult, and another altogether to find yourself excluded from it. This is the utter opposite of the romantic vampire fantasy aimed at female audiences, but Wendigo reminds me that the female fantasy is included in the film only to be refuted as a kind of sick joke on poor Marianne. We think she's being set up so Karl the romantic pianist can bite her, but the Vampire Cult is such that Karl is only a stalking horse for the master (a "beautiful thing" he keeps around for that purpose, if not others), and when the time comes it is old Dr. Ravna who takes her. This doesn't promise a passionate future. She is reduced to a robotic thrall, doomed to abject subservience to Ravna unless Gerald can reclaim his manhood and her womanhood with Zimmer's unorthodox aid.

A cross may keep a vampire at bay for a while, but Professor Zimmer has some unholy plans for a more permanent remedy for the "foul disease."

Kiss is perhaps the least Christian of the Hammer vampire films. Despite what Wendigo deems one of the lamest cross bits ever when Gerald paints one on his chest with his own blood, the power of God or faith plays little role in the battle with the Cult. Zimmer scoffs at the idea that his enemies have anything to do with Satan. He's concerned with "the real devil...the force of fundamental evil," one that can be countered by powers of all kinds. The cross is a powerful symbol, but Zimmer employs symbols that don't register as Christian, yet are equally powerful if not more so. His final solution to the Vampire Cult problem is the invocation of the forces of evil, "forcing evil to destroy itself." Not the crucifix, not the sun, not holy water, but a host of animated and wire-dangling bats crashing through stained-glass windows to suck dry the white-clad cultists, forcing the females to the floor for bouts of leg-baring, panty-exposing writhing about that is more stark for not ending with the vampires turned to ash, bones, maggots or what have you. The effects leave something to be desired, as they always did at Hammer, but Wendigo reminds us that they're not as bad as the awful kite-like bats in Brides of Dracula.

In Wendigo's estimate, The Kiss of the Vampire is better than average but far from the best of Hammer's vampire movies. It's not as great as Horror of Dracula or Vampire Lovers but a lot better than much of the later stuff. Ahead of its time in ways, it can't make the most of its sexual-subjugation concept due to still-strong censorship, but it still has a power to inspire male dread and the Cult concept probably has yet to be done as effectively.

It occurs to us, by the way, that the vampire still has the power to inspire male dread, especially when he shows up on screen more beautiful than ever and has no mortal competition, existing only to satisfy female fantasies and threatening to monopolize a genre that some people think belongs to them....But that may be a topic for another time.

The trailer is a bit dark, but it's more than you get on the Universal DVD. This version was uploaded to YouTube by khayambashi.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

Good review. The Kiss of the Vampire deserves to be better known. I prefer the Hammer vampire movies that got away from the Dracula thing.