Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Vampire (1957)

In the mid-1950s, until England’s Hammer Studios revived it in a big way, it might have seemed that the gothic horror movie (as distinct from the science fiction monster movie) was all but dead. But the genre never quite died.

The genre did however borrow quite heavily from science fiction and 1950s horror tended to present gothic horror themes such as vampires in a rather science fictional way.

The low-budget 1957 American horror flick The Vampire (renamed The Mark of the Vampire for later television release) is a good illustration of this. It does have vampires but rather than being supernatural creatures they’re explained as being the result of a scientific experiment gone wrong, which the makes this movie a cross between a vampire movie and a mad scientist movie.

Of course one of the attractions of bringing in a science fictional explanation is that it lends itself to a contemporary setting, and for the low-budget film-maker a contemporary setting  had the very big advantage of keeping costs down.

The Vampire starts off with a mad scientist. Dr Matt Campbell lives alone in an old and very gothic-looking house. He’s working on some mysterious experiment. No-one actually dislikes him but he is regarded as being perhaps a bit odd and too solitary.

At the point where he believes he has achieved success at last he dies from a sudden heart attack. Just before he dies he tells his friend Dr Paul Beecher (John Beal) that he has finally succeeded and that the results are in a jar of pills that he hands him.

But just what had Dr Campbell succeeded in doing? And what do these pills contain? Dr Beaumont (Dabbs Greer) and his strangely monosyllabic assistant Henry (James Griffith) are not sure. Dr Beaumont is head of the psychology department at the university that was funding Dr Campbell’s research but he knows little of what Dr Campbell was actually doing. Now he and Henry must try to discover exactly what Dr Campbell had succeeded in doing.

This becomes more urgent when a series of mysterious deaths starts to occur. An odd feature of these deaths is that the victims have two small wounds on their necks, which are naturally enough presumed to be insect bites.

Meanwhile Dr Beecher is beginning to get some idea of what those tablets mean. The first thing he learns is that once you’ve taken one you have to go on taking them. Within 24 hours the craving for the pills starts to become unbearable. He also starts having strange disturbing dreams. He wakes up in the morning tired and more than usually disheveled, and with one very stark image - the image of a face. It’s a different face each time. When he discovers that these faces are the faces of the people who were killed the previous night he begins to realise the full horror of what’s happened to him. He begins to fear both the pills and himself, and to fear for his young daughter.

In a mad scientist movie you expect the mad scientist to pay the price of his forbidden and horrible experiments. It’s a clever touch that in this movie it’s not the mad scientist who pays, it’s a man who is really no more than an innocent bystander. Another nice touch is the sinister assistant Henry who turns out to be completely harmless.

John Beal’s performance as Dr Beecher is rather better than you expect from this type of bargain basement feature. He manages to convey the terror of the doctor’s predicament quite convincingly.

The makeup effects are cheap but while they do look a little like Halloween masks they work quite well, largely due to Beal’s competent acting.

Director Paul Landres made a few low-budget movies but spent most of his career in television. Considering the budgetary constraints under which he was operating here he does a competent enough job. The movie is well-paced which is always a major asset in a low-budget movie.

This movie comes as part of one of MGM’s Midnite Movies DVD series (paired with The Return of Dracula) in a beautiful widescreen anamorphic transfer. As always with these Midnite Movies the low price tag is a major inducement.

The Vampire presents a few interesting twists on both the vampire and mad scientist themes. It’s hardly a horror classic (and is perhaps in some ways closer to being one of the science fiction monster movies mentioned earlier) but it’s entertaining viewing and is certainly worth a look, especially given the bargain price of the DVD.

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