Picture the scene: it’s a typically grim day as mourners gather for the funeral of a young woman taken before her time. The sky is grey and ravens caw their little black hearts out just off screen as the wind pushes autumn leaves around the graveyard. On of the mourners, a lined faced old woman nudges her companion to let her know that the girl’s father has arrived, standing over proceedings on the top of a hill, his top hat jammed on his head as he casts a stoney eye over the maudlin group. As someone whispers some idle gossip about it being obvious that he’s been drinking, he strides to the graveside, pays his respects and then demands that the gravedigger hand him his shovel.
Suddenly, without warning, the man plunges the spade through the coffin and into the chest of the body within as a skin crawling shriek is heard coming from the grave and as everyone screams and flees the scene, the father watches impassively as impossibly bright blood pools up from the hole in the casket. It’s a rollicking opening that stands as one of Hammer’s more powerful openings, but The Kiss Of The Vampire ultimately ends up being more of a peck on the cheek than a full blown snog…
Gerald and Marianne Harcourt are newly weds who have chosen to spend their honeymoon puttering aimlessly through early 20th century Bavaria in their motor car and inevitably the two rather bland lovebirds run out of petrol in the middle of nowhere.
While Gerald wanders off in search of fuel, Marianne is told to stay in the car where it’s safe (even though it has no bloody roof), but she still manages to bump into the stoney faced Professor Zimmer, the spade wielder from the pre-credits sequence, who warns her of danger.
Being the sort of people who laugh off deathly serious warnings in the middle of a deserted forest, they eventually make it to a small village where they’re enthusiastically welcomed by the hotel owner who doubles down on making them feel welcome. Also rolling out the proverbial red carpet is the gracious, but definately weird Dr. Ravna, who invites them to his castle and introduces them to his similarly pale and rigid children Carl and Sabena who all immediately take a shine to Marianna.
However, after attending a lavish ball thrown by the Ravna family, Gerald awakes to find his wife missing, with everyone suddenly gaslighting him claiming that said wife doesn’t even exist and as he dashes around town, desperately trying to find the edges of this conspiracy, Dr. Ravna’s dastardly plan is revealed. It seems that the Ravna family are vampires and have their very own cult whom they are eager for a hypnotised Marianna to join and the only thing that stands against them is the batty revenge Professor Zimmer has in store for the death of his daughter.
The biggest problem The Kiss Of The Vampire has is that due to it’s rather sedate pace and quiet tone, it kind of falls down the side of Hammer’s metaphorical sofa and is forgotten when held up against the iconic majesty of Christopher Lee’s early Dracula appearances and the deranged, pervy bloodletting of their 70’s vampire entries. As well as that, the film has an almighty hill to climb thanks to it’s own, impressive, pre-credits sequence that’s a masterclass in camp, gothic shock.
I can appreciate the more deliberate speed which favours mood over more fang-happy antics, especially when it comes to its Hitchcockian, The Lady Vanishes style plot twist, but the film takes a near snail’s pace to get to the point. It also doesn’t help that our two leads played by Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel are so painfully vanilla you’re somewhat surprised they’re not travelling in an ice cream van and their one dimentional niceness doesn’t exactly translate into a gripping couple to spend time with. However, they’re matched by the Ravna family who’s particular brand of vampiric villainy (you can’t spell ravanous without Ravna, apparently) is to glare at everyone with non-emoting, blank faces meaning that the only character in the piece that’s truly interesting is Clifford Evans’ Prof Zimmer who – when he isn’t obliterating his grief with liquor – is haphazardly cauterizing vampire bites by setting fire to his entire forearm and has a truly novel approach to vampire disposal that goes way beyond stakes and crosses.
In fact, the only thing in The Kiss Of The Vampire that manages to match its superlative opening is its (literally) batshit climax which sees Zimmer pull a metaphysical uno card upon the bloodsuckers and invoke a swarm of bats from hell to take them and their cult out with maximum fangage. However, while the opening scene is a masterclass in gothic shock, the ending us memorable chiefly for being as goofy as fuck as the bats (mostly bought from a local branch of Woolworths, so I’m told) flap spastically as they flit around on painfully obvious wires as their victims hold them to their necks and spit out blood capsules as they expire melodramatically. It’s a cool concept (Cushing’s Van Helsing never pulled this shot) that’s turned out endearingly silly, but at least the movie finishes on a burst of energy which pays off the slow burn we’ve patiently sat through up to this point. In fact, despite that the film was released in 1963, its over familiar set up of a nice, normal, stranded couple running up against a bizarre cult makes it weirdly tough not to think of it as a pointlessly straight Rocky Horror Picture Show. Needless to say, half expecting the Ravna family to break out into a spirited rendition of The Timewarp probably didn’t help with my attention span much…
Of course, all the lavish sets, cinematography, costumes and general tone of the film are up to Hammer’s usual high standards (the ball with all of its masks and elegance is a particular standout) and that unique atmosphere the studio made legendary is present and correct – but it takes far too long to get to the point and its main villains are nowhere as interesting as the bunch of Counts the studio gifted us throughout it’s long a storied history.
Still, as mid-level Hammer goes, when The Kiss Of The Vampire is good, it’s great, but so unless you’re a Hammer completist, this is one Kiss that refuses to pass second base.