KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963) July 23rd 1977 23.45 – 01.10
Blood! More blood!
When I think back to the BBC2 horror double bills of the 1970s (and by now it may be becoming apparent that that’s something I do quite a lot), there are two specific images which remain frozen onto my inner eyeballs more vividly than any others, and it’s interesting to me that both are from this 1977 season, Dracula, Frankenstein – and Friends! and both are from Hammer films.
One is a moment from The Reptile in which John Laurie’s mad Peter sprawls into close up, framed through a window, eyes blank and staring, his neck black and crusty from the reptile’s bite and white foam bubbling from his lips, and the other is this one, from the opening of Kiss of the Vampire.
The mournful toll of a funereal bell. A gnarled tree, leafless and twisted, occupies the foreground of a gloomy, shadowed graveyard. A sombre, muted gaggle of mourners. A grim-faced, black-clad figure appears at the brow of a hill, approaches the graveside and suddenly launches the gravedigger’s spade through the splintering wood of the coffin. Ear-splitting scream. Close up of coffin lid. Bright red blood wells and pulses around the spade, before the camera glides through the coffin lid to reveal the face of the woman within, fangs bared, and we crash into the opening titles.
It’s archetypal Hammer, the same conscious ‘shock ’em quick’ strategy which governs the opening of their majestic 1958 Dracula and the same copious use of that oddly lurid approximation of human blood which has become immortalised as ‘Kensington gore’. It was always too startlingly crimson for any undue realism to intrude, but also the perfect shade to make the most striking use of Hammer’s lush Eastman colour stock, as much a part of the production designs as the red-painted berries foregrounded in Curse of Frankenstein, or the scarlet of Christopher Lee’s eyeballs.
The image has remained with me forever, and I’m led to wonder why. It’s not the film itself I remember so vividly, and in fact there are many of the films I first saw in these horror double bill seasons which I remember better, as whole texts. And although naturally I’ve seen Kiss of the Vampire many times since (or perhaps that’s not so natural if viewed with any degree of rationality), it’s still that specific moment, captured in mental freeze frame like some internal PrtScn technology, which sticks with me, rather than the film as a whole. And of course, it’s the gore, isn’t it?
Gore holds a curious place in the history of the genre, and also in my relationship with it. To a contemporary generation of fright fans for whom the question ‘how good is the film?’ is almost directly synonymous with the question ‘how gory is it?’ this may seem unbelievable, but blood and guts have not always been a convention of the genre. The golden age of black and white offered a pinprick of blood on Renfield’s fingertip, and that was about it. No lingering close-ups of death and mutilation. No body parts. Suspense, malice, and sub-textual perversity, yes, but gore had no role to play. Shadowplay, off-screen stakings and out-of-shot screams. That was horror. Until Hammer. Until colour. Until the gunshot to Chris Lee’s face in Curse of Frankenstein.
As the vividness of my memory of Kiss of the Vampire’s plunging spade suggests, in the first flush of my horror film enthusiasm I responded to the visceral impact (or perhaps more literally, the viscera) of Hammer’s gore revolution in a way both powerful and direct, just as 1950s cinema audiences, faced with a startlingly new and bloody take on the gothic, had done before me.
The most immediate and obvious evidence of my response was confronted by my English teachers in those early years of secondary school. After having spent a futile year of pleading with me to write about something other than alien invasion, they were suddenly presented with a startling succession of severed limbs and buckets of blood. No amount of healthy, clean cut role model types in the books on the required reading lists could stem the blood-dimmed tide; no suggested story title was sufficiently innocuous to avoid a set-piece dismemberment. Picasso had his blue period (don’t trouble to check it out, art philistines, it’s not nearly as interesting as the name suggests); this was certainly my red one.
Looking back, I regard this first prelapsarian flush of gory enthusiasm as roughly analogous to the utter, cheery brutality and innocence of the childhood id. I see it again now, in my own children’s hysterical laughter when a squabbly tug of war over a plastic baby results in each of them suddenly gazing in surprise at a severed leg clutched tightly in their hand while the torso flops disconsolately onto the carpet. Either I’ve bred two prospective serial killers, or children have an instinctive sense of the absurd comedy inherent in the body’s brutalisation.
It was a relatively brief interlude for me, however, before the intervention of the disapproving superego. As I increasingly began to value the subtlety and restraint of the ‘old ones’, I came to reject and undervalue the newer, bloodier aesthetic with ever more censorious fervour. I became that rarest of horror fan animals, the anti-gore purist.
While the heightened gothic atmosphere, the literary respectability, the high production values and the distinguished acting chops of Cushing, Price and Lee allowed me to – a little bit guiltily – continue to adore the Hammers, the Amicus anthologies and Corman’s AIP Poe Pictures, the 70s new wave was too much for me.
Despite the gore I continued to find perfectly acceptable in my own essays I reacted with genuine anger and disgust to the gritty and disturbing realism of the blood and entrails on offer when the 1978 season of BBC2 horror double bills included a screening of George A Romero’s The Crazies. It took many years before I was able to see the satiric genius in Romero’s gore-fixated oeuvre, or any merit whatsoever in the likes of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, John Carpenter’s Halloween or anything with Wes Craven’s name attached.
Of course artists are always gradually pushing boundaries, and the 70s new wave of horror films – almost all remade in the last decade – now themselves seem tame to the Saw and Hostel generation, but for me the brutal pessimism and nihilism I first encountered in Romero’s dystopian visions continues to make for slightly queasy and uncomfortable viewing.
Whether pleasure or objection, both reactions to the gore which has become so established a convention of the genre stem ultimately from the same source, which is a profound sense of transgression. The gore movie revels in its ability to display the forbidden and the taboo. In the real world we’re not supposed to see the insides of another human being, unless we’re a surgeon or a soldier. I remember a friend of mine trying to describe to me what his experience of being in the operating theatre for his wife’s caesarean had been like, and, growing slightly wide-eyed, he whispered conspiratorially ‘I’ve seen Kate’s spleen.’
Some of us are drawn to the transgressive and the forbidden, others are terrified and disapproving; most of us are a bit of both. I don’t pretend to be Richard Dawkins – not since the court case, anyway (sorry again about that Richard) – but I wonder if there may be a biological, evolutionary imperative at work here. Many of the deepest fears on which the horror film works have a buried, ancient, primeval quality – the darkness beyond the circle of fire, the monster lurking in the woods. To the hunters of the ancient past the sudden startling exposure of the body’s interior could mean urgent, life-threatening danger but might equally be the precursor to food. Blood serves as a warning but also an appetiser. Somewhere in the primordial swamp of the collective unconscious, I think we’re still responding to the same stimuli.
I may be – yet again – merely revealing my own intense philistinism, but I strongly suspect that it’s a similar response at work in my love of the art of Francis Bacon. For others there may be an altogether more refined aesthetic in play, but I fear there’s something rubberneckingly voyeuristic about my appreciation of all those twisted bodies, all that semi human roadkill somehow always caught in a moment of agonised transformation. We are all raw meat for Bacon. See what I did there?
There are many and varied reasons why David Lynch is my favourite filmmaker – not least his ability to capture an extraordinarily beautiful, poignant and romantic sense of yearning and a deeply felt humanity which is often overlooked by those who see only the nightmarish qualities in his work. Alongside those qualities, though, a further key to my love of his films is his Baconian morbidity, on display in the various gunshots to the head taken by Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Deputy Cliff in Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me and Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart; in his love of giants and little men; in the half glimpsed anguish of Bill Pullman’s transformation into Balthazar Getty in Lost Highway; in the loving way his camera enfolds and caresses Spike, the baby (‘they don’t know if it is a baby’) in Eraserhead; and of course in John Hurt’s heartbreakingly moving turn as John Merrick in The Elephant Man.
There’s always a sense of the physical in flux: Bacon’s paintings and Lynch’s films share a preoccupation with the wild, excessive possibilities that may befall the body, both as a source of horror and as a sensual indulgence of the act of looking. If Bacon and Lynch stand at the artier end of the spectrum, then amongst more lowbrow horror fare, Tod Browning’s notorious Freaks occupies similar territory of course, and whether through disease, deformity or the trauma of sudden and bloody violence – a spade through the coffin lid, for instance – the brutalisation of the body is perhaps the dark subtext of all horror stories
Beyond the impact of Kiss of the Vampire’s memorably bloody opening, for me the film is one of the best of Hammer’s vampire pictures. Like Brides of Dracula – which it closely resembles in a number of ways – it remains partly defined by its christopherleelessness, but I find the icy detachment of Noel Willman as Dr Ravna, the lofty patriarch of a perverse vampire family an interesting variation on the theme. Hammer’s Dracula also carried a coldly autocratic manner with him, but coupled it with an animalistic ferocity and sensuality. Lee’s sinewy physicality is replaced here by Willman’s remote, cerebral quality – he reportedly informed his fellow cast members that he intended never to vary his facial expression in playing the part – which seems to suggest distaste, rather than desire, for his victims.
Willman is introduced immediately post credits as a sinister observer; with the economy and tautness of narrative approach I was beginning to recognise as characteristic of the Hammer style he is established for the audience as the source of danger and threat from the off.
If Willman’s Dr Ravna is an interesting variation on Lee’s Dracula, then the contrast offered by Clifford Evans’ Professor Zimmer to Cushing’s Van Helsing is even more startling. Fulfilling essentially the same role, Evans brings a fiery, even frightening quality to the part. ‘This time it’s personal’, his tagline might have run, because it emerges that it is Zimmer’s own daughter, corrupted by the decadent vampire cult (in this film vampirism seems to be more like a lifestyle choice than a supernatural affliction) whose body he has defiled with the gravedigger’s spade in the opening sequence. He is harsh and unapproachable in a way that was never true of Cushing’s at times frosty, but ultimately warm and humane vampire hunter. He is a broken down drunk at the beginning of the film – in a scene which echoes Cushing’s burning out of Meinster’s bite in Brides of Dracula Zimmer tellingly uses alcohol rather than holy water to cauterise his wound. By the film’s conclusion, he is prepared to use an occult ritual to turn all the powers of Hell (summoned in the slightly less than impressive form of plastic toy bats Hammer bought in from Woolworths) against the vampires in a ‘by any means necessary’ manner which would have been quite alien to Van Helsing. Zimmer is every bit as fascinating a departure from the established template as Willman’s Ravna.
Don Sharp, the director of Kiss of the Vampire was new to Hammer and to the horror genre, which perhaps accounts for the very interesting variations he works on the established Lee/Cushing/Terence Fisher formula. Perhaps the most notable of all these innovations, however, is the way he reconfigures the Hammer film as something more akin to the paranoid thriller.
Paranoia is key to Kiss of the Vampire, and it is perhaps inevitable that the film owes the biggest debt of all Hammer’s gothics to Hitchcock. Hammer had enjoyed some minor success in the wake of the master’s 1960 low budget box office bonanza Psycho with a short series of black and white contemporary thrillers which wore the influence unashamedly on their sleeves; Taste of Fear in 1961, Maniac and Paranoiac in 1963, and Nightmare in 1964 now often grouped together under the everything you need to know label of ‘mini Hitchcocks’.
Under Sharp’s able direction however, Kiss of the Vampire was a much more original homage to the master in it’s fascinating combination of Hitchcockian paranoia with Hammer’s more familiar gothic period milieu.
When Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniels’ newlyweds finally arrive at the local inn, the quirkily friendly innkeeper and his close-lipped, tearful wife, apparently welcoming but clearly harbouring dark, tormented secrets of their own, seem to have stepped straight from The 39 Steps or The Man Who Knew Too Much.
An extended sequence of paranoid cinema par excellence develops when de Souza awakes after a ball at Ravna’s chateau to find his wife missing and no-one willing to admit that she has ever existed. It is the dilemma straight out of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (itself reworked in a little known early Terence Fisher movie called So Long at the Fair) but as befits a frantic search for a spouse rather than a stranger, it is played at an even higher pitch, and de Souza’s rising panic and desperation is palpable.
The failure to convince, or to be believed, or even to get anyone to listen, is the key to Hitchcock classics like North by North West and The Wrong Man. It’s essentially a childhood fear, isn’t it? That sense of panic, and injustice, and the horror that a cold and smugly complacent adult world will judge us and condemn us and simply refuse to listen because, of course, it knows best.
The fear of voicelessness is surely a universal part of everyone’s childhood (remember the most visceral moment in the Wachowski’s The Matrix, when Neo is apparently under FBI interrogation and the mysterious Agent Smith somehow, impossibly, seals up his mouth?), and it is one on which Hitchcock – and Don Sharp here – nags away at remorselessly, like scratching a scab.
There’s another, and perhaps an even deeper, kind of paranoia at work in Kiss of the Vampire though. It’s no coincidence that the young couple at the heart of the narrative are honeymooners, a recurrent motif in the horror film.
What is it about young honeymooners or nearly weds? Why should they so often be at the head of the queue for persecution from vampires and villains of all persuasions? What makes them so vulnerable? It’s true of quality genre fare like Kiss of the Vampire, White Zombie and Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat, but also abysmal schlock titles like 1964’s Honeymoon of Horror or 1982’s Horror Honeymoon. I suppose again it is a vulnerability associated with transition – with the uncertainty inherent in moving from one stage to another.
The general assumption would have been that the young couple on screen were sexually inexperienced, certainly for 1930s audiences faced with The Black Cat, and in the main for those of the 1960s, particularly when the film is set in period like Kiss of the Vampire. Indeed, one way of seeing the film, with its decadent cult of hedonistic vampires is as a puritanical rejection of the permissive values which were transforming the sixties. The threat then derives from placing their naivety in conflict with a more experienced, perverse version of adult sexuality – whether Ravna and his ‘family’ in Kiss of the Vampire, Murder Legendre and Beaumont in White Zombie or Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig in The Black Cat.
Stepping over the threshold of adult sexuality is often seen only in terms of its pleasures and its excitements, but it has its terrors and anxieties too, of which ‘will I be any good?’ is only the most obvious. Ian McEwan dissects the psychology of nervous young newlyweds with the precision of a surgeon in his novel On Chesil Beach, but the paranoia was there for all to see writ large in the subtext of classic horror many years before that.
Gerald and Marianne Harcourt are introduced to us as the conventional ‘happy couple’, utilising all the period’s stock devices, including a very chaste sort of suggestiveness to establish the idea that they are ‘in love’ (‘whatever in love means’, as a grim-faced Big Ears once glumly observed to camera while standing sulkily beside his Noddy). Alongside it though is a strange, rather stiff, unnatural and colourless quality, a forced jollity which feels curiously uncomfortable and artificial. De Souza’s Gerald and Daniels’ Marianne seem to represent neither wild young lust nor cosy domesticity, but a tense and uneasy hinterland between the two.
The tension is subtly but unmistakeably exploited when the pair accept an apparently innocuous invitation to dinner at the Ravna chateau. While a complacently oblivious Gerald looks on, his wife is entranced, enraptured and comprehensively seduced by the piano playing of Ravna’s ‘son’ Carl – the only member of the ‘family’ to incongruously adopt a cod German accent.
Jennifer Daniels plays this almost dialogue free scene exceptionally well, her face, framed in tight close up, registering at first merely polite interest, which quickly shades into something altogether more burning and intense, into sensual pleasure and an overt sexual attraction. As the intensity of Carl’s playing increases, she begins to rock backward and forward, entirely overpowered by the strength of her own response, and it is only at this point that de Souza’s Gerald notices something may be wrong.
‘Are you alright?’ he asks, quite uncomprehending of the nature of the scene which has unfolded and fearing merely that the little lady may feel a trifle faint. Marianne’s eyes never flicker however, the desperate urgency of her attention still fixed unwaveringly on Carl as she gasps (like many an actress before and since in a quite different kind of movie) ‘please…please don’t stop.’ The contrast between the sexual power and potency of the Ravna household and the dull stolidity of Gerald could hardly be more overt.
The power of the scene is heightened further by the fact that it is cross cut with the sequence in which Zimmer – in slow motion at the crucial moment – burns out the vampiric poison from the bite inflicted earlier on his hand by Tanya, the teenage temptress of Ravna’s pseudo family who is later revealed to be the missing daughter of the innkeeper and his wife. The parallel editing brilliantly draws out the contrast between the alluring and decadent temptations the cult offers and the true horror the film posits as lying poisonously beneath its seductive surface. In this it taps neatly into the anxieties of a generation of 1964 parents watching aghast as their children grew their hair, discovered the pill, invented sex and simultaneously dropped acid and their aitches.
The editing, incidentally, supervised like all the great Hammer films by the unsung James Needs is magnificent throughout. So, come to that, is the cinematography, here handed to Alan Hume, rather than the brilliant Jack Asher, now deemed ‘too slow’ by Hammer’s economy-conscious producers despite the fact that his wonderful work on the earlier films had, alongside Bernard Robinson’s exceptional production designs, done so much to establish the characteristic ‘Hammer look’.
Regardless of anyone’s opinion of the genre, the technical accomplishment of Hammer’s best films, all achieved on the slenderest of budgets, is exemplary and unquestionable, and it’s a crime that the BAFTAs and Oscars that the craftsmen responsible so emphatically deserved were never bestowed on them by a shamefully sniffy film establishment. The quality of their work was so high it’s little wonder to find the finest cinematographer Britain has ever produced, Freddie Francis, becoming one of Hammer’s most reliable directors, or so sophisticated a film stylist as Martin Scorsese quite happy to describe the influence and inspiration he derived from the studio’s output.
The masked ball sequence, particularly, is perhaps the finest example in the Hammer canon of all the technical elements working perfectly together. The lushness of the costumes and the masks, both sinister and beautiful. The sumptuous colour palette – particularly the rich scarlet of Marianne’s gown set against a sea of black tailcoats and, perhaps surprisingly, Ravna’s pure white robe. The sensual and haunting music of James Bernard, composer of nearly all of the very finest and most distinctive Hammer soundtracks. The ballroom set itself, which, like all Bernard Robinson’s work, offers luxury on a shoestring. The prowling, sinuous camerawork, and the exceptional fluidity of the edit which glides us seamlessly from a swirling, crowded dance floor to a sinister tableau in which only Carl and an apparently oblivious Marianne occupy the floor while a still and silent crowd of masked figures observe impassively from the sidelines. It moves the narrative of Marianne’s seduction forward with a beautiful visual economy, and like so much of Hammer’s best work it’s simultaneously sexy and scary.
Alongside this lush, exotic, sinister and sumptuous eroticism, stumbles poor Gerald. He is absurdly flattered by the apparent interest of the beautiful Sabena, and indulges in some awkward drunken flirting while paying a clumsy lip service to fidelity of the grinning and finger wagging ‘I’m a married man’ variety, completely oblivious to the schemes that are working on and around him.
Reargrounded by the framing of the earlier piano scene and rendered ridiculous in the ballroom sequence, poor Gerald is utterly inadequate and uncomprehending. How could he ever hope to provoke or understand, let alone fulfil, the intensity of desire the vampire cult seems to unleash in his young bride? There’s a terrible inevitability to her succumbing. Later, entirely subsumed into Ravna’s dark subversion of the nuclear family, a sultry and contemptuous Marianne spits into the face of the husband who has finally tracked her down.
This ultimate male paranoia is the fear played on at the heart of the film. Gerald’s failure to recognise or satisfy a female sensuality which lies always beyond his reach leads to Marianne eagerly submitting to the temptations of a fuller, richer, more mysterious and powerful version of sexuality than he could ever be capable of awakening. It’s a vivid embodiment of a universal male fear, and one that Edward de Souza’s rather charmingly effective performance as the rather charmingly ineffectual Gerald makes all the more ripe for empathy.
After all, isn’t it true that for most of us male desire seems somehow single and clear, easily defined and measurable in inches and fluid ounces? Female sexuality, on the other hand, seems shifting, looser and deeper, more subtle and ephemeral, amorphous, ambiguous and crucially, impossible for a man to truly grasp or control.
The same dilemma underscores Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and David Lynch’s extraordinary Lost Highway, perhaps most of all in the sequence in which Balthazar Getty’s Pete and Patricia Arquette’s Alice make love in the desert. Pete’s yearning and the brilliance of the headlights bleach the frame to almost white, accompanied by This Mortal Coil’s haunting cover of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren. What might, in a more conventional and less honest film, have served as the culmination of the couple’s longing is here concluded by Arquette leaning in to whisper ‘You’ll never have me’, before walking out of the hapless Getty’s reach, and clean out of the narrative itself.
Male anxiety in the face of female desire is archetypal. It’s this anxiety which accounts for a great deal of Kiss of the Vampire’s undeniable power, but in a much more genuinely sinister way this same anxiety is at the heart of much that is repressive and brutal in male mistreatment of women through the ages and around the world. It’s at the root of witch trials and the burka; of female circumcision and the story of the Fall; of chastity belts, bible belts and the degradations of pornography; of honour killings and twitter rape threats. The male will to power is always ugly, but in this fearful and psychotic determination to control that which it both fears and desires it is ugliest of all. Horror movies are often described as misogynistic, not least because they play on exactly this kind of male anxiety, but for me films like Kiss of the Vampire suggest that it’s more complex than that.
I recognise that this is hopelessly, naively, fatuously optimistic, but I sometimes dare to dream that my daughters could grow up in a world which has no further place for male aggression against women, where opportunities are equal and freedom real. A world where individual men and the fucked up male societies they create no longer feel the need to control and punish women for their own panicked sense of inadequacy, impotence and longing.
I’m afraid I have to admit, reluctantly, that I don’t really believe such a world will ever come to pass, but if it does, the work will be done in part by things like Kiss of the Vampire, which allow the roots of male fear and envy and resentment to be embodied, and explored, and, like the vampires in the final reel, dragged screaming and shrivelling into the daylight, rather than repressed and distorted and turned viciously outward against the innocent.