by Steve Habrat
In 1958, Hammer Films revived the gothic vampire film with Horror of Dracula, which is arguably considered one of the finest films the studio ever produced. Hammer would follow up Horror of Dracula with 1960’s The Brides of Dracula, a sequel that boasted the presence of Christopher Lee’s overlord vampire, but didn’t actually include a cameo from the head bloodsucker. In 1963, Hammer would release director Don Sharp’s Kiss of the Vampire, their second vampire film released before Lee returned in 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Featuring an immensely strong opening sequence and presenting its vampires as a cult, the little-known Kiss of the Vampire is a unique entry within the vampire genre. It’s gracefully acted, stuffed with Hammer’s trademark gothic set design, and plenty eerie enough to entertain viewers when they have exhausted the Dracula series. Sadly, Kiss of the Vampire isn’t without its flaws, as the head vampire Ravna finds himself lost in Lee’s shadow, and the climax falls victim to some ludicrous special effects. It’s a shame to see the climax trip as badly as it does considering that Hammer consistently delivered strong finishes to their horror films.
Kiss of the Vampire begins with newlyweds Gerald (played by Edward de Souza) and Marianne (played by Jennifer Daniel) setting off on their honeymoon. They are traveling by car through the countryside when they run out of gas near a remote village. Unable to find fuel, the couple makes their way to a nearby inn and starts settling in for the evening. As they unpack, the owners, Bruno (played by Peter Madden) and Anna (played by Vera Cook), deliver an invitation to the couple from Dr. Ravna (played by Noel Willman), a wealthy local who wishes to have the couple dine with him in his lavish castle. Gerald and Marianne graciously accept the invitation and head up to meet Dr. Ravna and his two children, Carl (played by Barry Warren) and Sabena (played by Jacquie Wallis). After dinner, Dr. Ravna encourages Carl to demonstrate his talents as a pianist, but as he plays, Marianne seems to be falling into a trance. Convinced that all the action of the day his worn his wife out, Gerald decides to call it evening. Before he leaves, Dr. Ravna agrees to track down fuel for the happy couple. The next day, Carl and Sabena visit Gerald and Marianne to invite them to a masked ball they are throwing that weekend, but shortly after their arrival, they are scared off when the town drunk Professor Zimmer (played by Clifford Evans) approaches them. Ignoring Professor Zimmer’s warnings about the Ravnas, the couple attends the party, but as they mingle with the guests, they begin to suspect that there may be a wicked side to the seemingly polite family.
Before Sharp even rolls the credits on Kiss of the Vampire, he delivers the strongest and bloodiest scene of the entire film. He begins on a procession of mourners as they file through a graveyard under an overcast sky. At the head of the pack is a priest chanting in Latin over the sobs of loved ones. As they arrive at the grave, two mourners notice a man standing off in the distance. They whisper amongst themselves about how he is probably drunk when he suddenly starts making his way into the graveyard. As he approaches the coffin with fire in his eyes, he grabs a shovel and drives it straight through the wood. Sharp zooms in on the splintered wood as candle wax blood oozes through the gaping hole. Over the soundtrack, a piercing cry sends the mourners and the priest running for their lives as the coffin turns transparent and reveals a dying vampire. From here, Sharp and screenwriter Anthony Hinds allow the action to slowly build. We know there are sinister forces at play, but we’re unsure when they will make themselves known. After a number of teases, Sharp and Hinds let the evil run rampant at a masked ball where he finally lets us glimpse the undead cult.
With its slower pacing, Kiss of the Vampire allows the audience to really get to know the characters, which are all splendidly brought to life by the cast. Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel capture the friskiness and optimism of a young married couple ready to take on the world. They playfully tease each other and when they embrace for a kiss, the dinner table they agreed to sit down to in ten minutes is forced to wait another five minutes. When the undead wedge is driven between them, we root for de Souza to find a way to reunite with his hypnotized lover before her soul is consumed by the vampire cult. Noel Willman is gentlemanly early on as the suspicious Dr. Ravna, but at times his performance is on the dry side. There is no flair to his performance and there are only hints of menace that show through when he stands in front of his devoted followers. Just like David Peel’s head vampire in The Brides of Dracula, he is forever lost in Lee’s vampire bat shadow. Clifford Evans rounds out the cast as the drunken vampire slayer Professor Zimmer, a no-nonsense protagonist who makes Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing look like a softie. His disgust for the vampire sect he is hunting is white hot and he will make sure he finishes off his prey by any means necessary. It’s a shame that Willman wasn’t eager to get a bit darker with his role to really ramp up the battle between good and evil.
If there is one thing that Hammer Films could do, it’s end their horror films in the most satisfying manner possible. While there have been some truly classic finales (Horror of Dracula’s final showdown comes to mind), Kiss of the Vampire ends in the most lackluster way possible, a low for the studio. Our gruff vampire hunter conjures up a pack of bats to come flying to the rescue and it looks as cheap as special effects come. They bob through shattering stained glass windows and swoop down to feast on the flesh of the undead cult members, their white robes turning red with each new bite. The deaths are over dramatic and poorly timed as they shriek out through the rubber bats glued to their faces. Overall, Kiss of the Vampire begins with plenty of vigor as vampires are brutally slain right in front of horrified bystanders. From there it opts for a slow burn, but Sharp just can’t muster a fitting climax for what we have just seen. Extra credit is given for the solid performances, (especially from Evans), the cult angle given to the vampires, the bloody cross used to repel Ravna and his children, and the gothic set design that is turned up to eleven.
Kiss of the Vampire is available on DVD.