BEAUTIFUL FANGS: SCREAM FACTORY’S “KISS OF THE VAMPIRE”
Shout! Factory Blu Ray
Review by C. Courtney Joyner (9/11/20)
5 out of 5 stars
A movie called KISS OF EVIL got me sent to the principal’s office at Montgomery Country Day School after I’d struggled during show-and-tell to re-create the movie’s opening with a drunken Clifford Evans jamming a shovel through the lid of a coffin, piercing the heart of his dead daughter inside and stopping her vampire resurrection. It was 1966, and I was in the third grade and now thoroughly mesmerized by my first encounter with Hammer horror.
What I’d seen on NBC the night before was actually a re-titling of KISS OF THE VAMPIRE with new scenes added to replace other, gorier moments thought too intense for network TV. NBC’s chicanery didn’t work. Even censored, this British horror was daring, atmospheric, violent, and full of beautiful, nightgown-wearing women who revealed their fangs with a kiss. This was all quite a contrast to
the classic Universal horrors I watched every Saturday on Dr. Shock’s SCREAM-IN. The Universal monsters were old friends, while Hammer’s creatures were forbidden and seductive, which was exactly what director Don Sharp wanted to accomplish with 1963’s KISS OF THE VAMPIRE.
I’m thrilled to say that Scream Factory’s release of KISS OF THE VAMPIRE completely honors the film’s intentions in a beautiful transfer with superb extras. As just a feast for the eyes, this is one of the movies that personifies the “Hammer Gothic,” look: a sumptuous, blood-stained, period fantasy world of monsters and monster-killers.
The “world” in this case is chateau of the evil Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman), who has established a cult of vampires that he rules as a dictator, while also controlling the lives of the local villagers. The exception is Professor Zimmer (Evans), who lives on whiskey and boiled eggs, trying to ease the memory of the daughter he lost to vampirism, while figuring a way in which to destroy them on their own supernatural terms. In classic Hammer fashion, honeymooners Gerald and Marianne (Edward DeSouza and Jennifer Daniel) stumble into this universe when their car breaks down, forcing them to stay in the inn at the foot of the chateau. Ravna takes note of the beautiful bride, and plans to make her one of his vampire maidens by seducing the young couple with a sumptuous party before taking Marianne prisoner.
Now the disbelieving Gerald must join forces with the raging Zimmer to steal back his wife from the coven of vampires, and hopefully, wipe them from the face of the earth by turning their own powers against them.
The script for KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, like many of Hammer’s 60’s horrors, was written by producer Anthony Hinds, under his John Elder pseudonym. There seemed to be a template for Hinds’ vampire scripts, with a young couple falling accidentally into the clutches of a coven of vampires or Dracula himself. Jimmy Sangster, from a story by Hinds, followed this to the letter with his script to DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS, which has serious echoes of KISS OF THE VAMPIRE in its plot structure of vacationing couples innocently drawn into a vampire’s lair. Later, in Hinds’ own scripts for DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, and SCARS OF DRACULA the idea of love being destroyed by vampiric evil/vampirism are a constant in the story of each film, as it is in KISS. In parallel to another Hammer production, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE’s memorable “bat climax” was originally been intended for Terence Fisher’s BRIDES OF DRACULA, but was shuttled when star Peter Cushing lobbied for Professor Van Helsing to jump into action a la Douglas Fairbanks, to dispatch the vampires. Hinds agreed and saved the scene for Sharp and company.
Hinds was one of the creators of Hammer’s gothic world, having been part of the company when his father, a comedian known as “Will Hammer,” and founded the company in the 1935 with Enrique Carreras and his son, James. Hammer was truly the Hinds family business, and he quietly set the company’s creative compass for decades, including pushing them into science-fiction and horror in the late 1950’s. By the time KISS OF THE VAMPIRE was being prepared, the commercial power of Terence Fisher’s landmark Frankenstein and Dracula films, along with his recent PHANTOM OF THE OPERA for Universal, had begun to dwindle. Hammer wanted to expand their projects, keep the old guard, and bring on board new filmmakers as the company roared into the 60’s with all styles of genre productions made in conjunction with both Universal and Columbia.
As a producer Hinds made a bold move by hiring Don Sharp for his first feature assignment after seeing his work on television. The young Australian was more than up to the task, bringing a sense of Terence Fisher’s elegance to KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, but infusing it with his own energy. Sharp would become one of the company’s most noted directors from his work on KISS, the swashbuckler THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES and RASPUTIN – THE MAD MONK featuring one of Christopher Lee’s finest performances. Sharp would later guide Lee in two well-made FU-MANCHU films before graduating to solid action films like Alistair MacLean’s BEAR ISLAND, an excellent re-make of THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, and directing the incredible boat chase in the spy thriller, PUPPET ON A CHAIN.
Although, sadly, the late Don Sharp isn’t on the Scream Factory release in an archive piece, stars Edward DeSouza and Jennifer Daniel recorded new commentaries as did Hammer experts Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr, who give production information on a separate track. There are also a number of excellent featurettes profiling composer James Bernard and art director Bernard Robinson who consistently worked miracles, building Hammer’s sets with very limited budgets. The disc also carried me back to the impact of that first NBC screening, as it includes all the special TV material that transformed the film into KISS OF EVIL. In addition, this release also has the television cut in its entirety.
KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, despite the non-presence of Hammer superstars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, remains one of the company’s most highly regarded films. A major influence on Roman Polanski’s FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, it is as inviting as villager Isobel Black, arms open and eyes fixed, stepping in close so we can feel her breath, before sinking her fangs into our necks. Scream Factory’s release of KISS OF THE VAMPIRE is a seduction into the world of Hammer, and one to which we should all surrender.