I just happened to throw this movie on the other day, not planning to review it, just in the mood for a bit of 50s gothic horror. The next day, the news broke of the sad death of the film’s writer, Jimmy Sangster. As one of the small group responsible for The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula (Horror of Dracula as it’s known in the US) and The Mummy, Sangster helped change the face of horror movies. He penned many other excellent films both for Hammer as well as other studios, not to mention TV scripts and novels. He was also a witty and engaging speaker, happy to hold court on his life and work. He’s one of those people who, although he lived to the ripe old age of 83, you can’t help feel went too soon. So by way of a personal and entirely inadequate tribute, here’s my review of Blood of the Vampire.
The film opens with a title card informing us that it’s Transylvania, 1874, where those suspected to be vampires are staked through the heart before burial. We immediately see this in action, the eagle-eyed among you possibly recognising future Bond villain Milton Reid as the stake-weilder. As the burial party leaves, a deformed, mute hunchback named Carl (Victor Maddern, Circus of Fear), kills the lone gravedigger and swipes the damaged body. Carl then seeks out a drunken doctor (Cameron Hall), who previously knew the victim and performs a heart transplant on the body. The doctor then makes the mistake of asking for more money, which earns him a stabbing from Carl as an animated bat flutters by. Because, y’know, vampires.
Meanwhile, at the Transylvanian High Court of Justice, Dr. John Pierre (Vincent Ball) is on trial over the death of a patient. The judge (John Le Mesurier, Dad’s Army) claims the testimony Pierre is relying on, from his teacher Professor Meinster, says the alleged mentor has never heard of Pierre. Thus the defendant is sentenced to life imprisonment. In the courthouse lock-up, after being menaced by a crook played by Hammer and Carry On regular Bernard Bresslaw, Pierre is allowed a few moments to speak to his fiancee Madeleine Duval (Barbara Shelley). She vows to find out why Meinster responded in such a strange fashion. Madeleine gives Pierre a locket with a rather fetching image of herself inside. By the way, is it me or are there a lot of people with French-sounding names in Transylvania?
Soon Pierre is transported to different prison than the one he was expecting. The head guard Wetzler (Andrew Faulds, The Flesh and the Fiends) is unpleasantly sneery and confiscates the locket. Pierre is placed in a dungeon with a guy named Kurt (William Devlin, Treasure island), who explains the place is worse than Hell, with horrible fates awaiting the inmates. The hunchback Carl, who now lives at the prison, swipes the locket from Wetzler and is mesmerised with Madeleine’s beauty. Hey, it’s Barbara Shelley after all. Pierre is put to work with other prisoners digging graves. One of the sickly inmates collapses, and even Wetzler’s vicious doberman can’t compel him to continue. But on hearing the warden Dr. Callistratus has suddenly returned, the terrified sick man gets up and carries on working. Later, Pierre is Summoned by Callistratus (Sir Donald Wolfit, Dr. Crippen), a strangely vampiric-looking man. Callistratus reveals he deliberately send for Pierre to come to his jail; as a doctor he can assist Callistratus in his research. The warden is working on identifying the different blood groups (it was by not correctly understanding these groups that Pierre killed his patient). As a reward, Pierre gets better quarters, and the run of the prison so he can take samples from the prisoners.
Unbeknown to Pierre, Callistratus has a second laboratory in the basement. Here he has Carl drain the blood from the previously collapsed prisoner, which he then transfuses to himself. Callistratus makes some cryptic comments about his work will go more quickly now that Pierre is helping. Carl discovers Callistratus’s housekeeper (Barbara Burke) spying on them, and before long she’s also an unwilling blood donor. Back at the high court, Madeleine has tracked down Professor Meinster (Henri Vidon), who confirms the letter read out during the trial was a forgery. The chief of justice sends Monsieur Auron (Bryan Coleman, The Hand) of the prison commission to look into the matter.
At the prison, Kurt tells Pierre about the lab beneath the other lab, and of terrible experiments that take place there. Pierre tries to bluff his way in and Carl attacks him, making Callistratus angry (well, more angry – his default setting seems to be furious). He reveals that he is trying to cure a rare blood condition, one which causes healthy cells to change to a new blood group that attacks all others. Callistratus is trying to find a combination of groups that can be transfused into a diseased subject to cure the condition. Pretty sure that’s not really how blood groups work, but never mind.
Pierre and Kurt try to escape, but it’s a set-up. Kurt is savaged by the guard dogs, apparently to death. Callistratus refuses to call them off as an example to the other prisoners. He tells the authorities that Pierre was killed in the escape attempt. Of course the whole case was a ruse to get Pierre to the prison in the first place, including Auron (who’s in on the whole thing) forging the letter from Meinster. Madeleine doesn’t believe Pierre is dead, so sets herself up as the new prison housekeeper and goes undercover. She quickly finds Pierre is alive, and has discovered evidence of Callistratus performing experiments on the supposedly-dead Kurt. After night falls, Pierre sneaks into Madeleine’s room. Their happy reunion is interrupted by Carl, who is smitten with Madeleine thanks to the locket. Pierre picks the stupidest hiding place in the room (right next to a mirror), allowing Carl to see him. After leaving Madeleine’s room Pierre checks Kurt’s grave and finds it empty. He’s spotted by Metzler, and in the ensuing struggle the guard is killed.
Madeleine is summoned to Callistratus’s chambers, where Auron is also waiting. The prison official recognises her, but does not reveal this immediately. Instead he follows her back to her room and tries to force himself on her. Carl sees this and, thanks to his infatuation, attacks Auron. With things falling apart, Callistratus lures Pierre to the other laboratory, where Madeleine is chained to a wall. Callistratus explains that because of his experiments with blood, superstitious locals branded him a vampire and he was sentenced to die. He infected himself with a blood culture to feign death and enable him to survive a staking and heart transplant, but the infection is now causing his blood to attack the other cells in his body. Now with Pierre’s help, Callistratus thinks he’s made a breakthrough that will cure the condition.
As a final experiment, Callistratus intends to transfuse all of Madeleine’s blood into the barely-alive Kurt, who has been deliberately infected with the culture. Carl though doesn’t want the new object of his affections to be hurt, so Callistratus is forced to shoot him. What’s left of Kurt doesn’t feel like co-operating either, grabbing Callistratus long enough for Pierre to get the better of him. With the mad doctor as a hostage, Madeleine and Pierre escape from the prison. Our hero vows to return after clearing his name, but Callistratus won’t be around to face justice; with the last of his strength, Carl releases the dogs, who in a nicely poetic bit of payback rip Calistratus apart. The end.
Blood of the Vampire’s producers, Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, met in the army film unit during World War II. At the end of hostilities, they partnered up to produce a slew of b-movies from 1948 well into the sixties. Berman and Baker were canny operators, keeping a close eye on what their successful rivals Hammer were doing. To this end they hired regular Hammer writer John Gilling to pen a bunch of the cheap thrillers the future House of Horror were making at the time. When Hammer had hits with sci-fi films based on television serials, they secured the remake rights to ATV’s The Trollenberg Terror (the resulting film better known as The Crawling Eye). Then when Hammer had an even bigger hit with their bloody, Eastmancolor gothic horror pictures, Berman and Baker wanted a piece of that action too. And what better way than by employing the proverbial goose laying all those golden eggs for their rival; Jimmy Sangster.
Blood of the Vampire was released in the summer of 1958, shortly after Hammer’s Dracula and around the time of The Revenge of Frankenstein, both also scripted by Sangster. As you’ve no doubt gathered from the synopsis, despite the vampire trappings (and the rather misleading opening scene) this is more of a Frankenstein story. In particular the theme of using prison inmates as raw material for medical experiments is remarkably similar to Frankenstein’s scheme in the aforementioned sequel, though in that particular film the unwilling participants are patients in a poor hospital. Also the theme of a disfigured servant falling for the female lead, with unfortunate consequences, is almost identical between the two films. I’m not complaining mind you; Sangster usually had to knock out finished scripts at some speed, often after the film had already been announced, and even the best writers only have so many ideas. What’s impressive is that even despite sharing elements, the two projects are different enough to be enjoyable on their own terms. The Revenge of Frankenstein is one of Hammer’s best films, and while Blood of the Vampire isn’t quite up to the same standard, it’s still very good. It’s also worth noting that Tony Hinds’ script for the last of the series, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, borrows heavily from this film.
The Hammer formula called for a distinguished actor in lead role. This was usually Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, though André Morell was an acceptable substitute. Berman & Baker went for the prestigious name of Sir Donald Wolfit, one of the famous group of actor/managers that included Sirs Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. Wolfit appeared in a number of genre films, most likely to fund his theatrical productions, though if you were to suggest to him he was a horror star you’d probably receive an angry response. Wolfit was by all accounts a nightmare to work with; unable to take criticism, awful to his stage companies, and known for filling them with mediocre supporting players who wouldn’t give him any competition. His peers saw him as something of a joke. After Wolfit’s death, his dresser Ronald Harwood wrote a play (later an Oscar-nominated film) entitled The Dresser (good title), about a dresser (see?) trying to keep an ageing, tyrannical leading actor called ‘Sir’ from going off the deep end. I’m sure it was totally fictional and in no way based on real life. Suddenly, Venerated Horror Icon Sir Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula sequels doesn’t seem so bad.
So with that in mind, how is Wolfit as Callistratus? Well, he’s pretty angry throughout; either because he’s a good actor and the part calls for it, or because he wasn’t pleased to be slumming in a derivative horror cheapie, or simply because he’s Sir Donald Motherfucking Wolfit. That said, it suits the character very well and thus he’s enjoyably nasty. Australian actor Vincent Ball is also good; he mostly did supporting roles in movies including a Carry On (Follow That Camel) and one of my favourite terrible British B-pictures, The Black Rider. Given the chance to step up to the lead, he’s great. After all of the interchangeable, rubbish Pauls and Hanses in Frankenstein and Dracula sequels, when the good-looking hero can actually act (and has a character), it’s worth taking note. Later Ball went back to Australia and worked on TV, including a stint in a soap much beloved of my wife in our university days, A Country Practice. Personally I wasn’t a fan; it was OK but it was no Young Doctors.
Then there’s Barbara Shelley, who requires me to find some way of expressing in words the action of gazing fondly into the distance and sighing. Barbara is one of my all-time favourite horror actresses. She was a step above the usual leading starlet, bringing a fierceness and determination to her characters even if, as written, they didn’t get much to do outside of being menaced. Her transformation from uptight wife to seductive vampire in Dracula, Prince of Darkness is among my favourite Hammer memories, and she was the company’s most prolific lead actress. At this point Barbara hadn’t yet appeared in a horror film for Hammer, though she gave an excellent performance in 1958’s The Camp on Blood Island (and had in fact made her film debut for the company in the little-seen 1952 thriller Mantrap). Her previous genre role had been as the titular Cat Girl in 1957, but this was her first foray into a gothic horror. Naturally, she’s brilliant. That fierce doggedness is very apparent in Madeleine, who despite her obvious fear still puts herself in harm’s way to save Pierre. Strong characters are a trademark of Sangster scripts; note that it was only after he stopped writing gothics for Hammer that those bloody Pauls and Hanses started to creep in.
One of Hammer’s selling points was their ability to make no-budget films look incredibly lavish and expensive, thanks to production designer Bernard Robinson. Blood of the Vampire isn’t quite on a par with Robinson’s work, but it’s pretty damn close. The prison sets are completed on an impressive scale, and only some dodgy matte paintings spoil the effect. Sadly the makeup is less successful, with Carl’s fake eye being the worst culprit. It’s plastered on with little care, can’t move or blink with Victor Maddern’s real eye and it’s not even the same colour. People complain about the prosthetics in Hammer films, but nothing Phil Leakey or Roy Ashton produced is as bad as this. Still, it’s an impressively gory film for the time, especially in the longer ‘international’ version (if you’re really interested this is available on DVD in Italy, though the print used is pretty poor).
Direction is by Henry Cass, who worked with the producers, Berman and Baker, often. His style is serviceable; he’s no Terence Fisher, but he gets the job done. It would be remiss of me not to mention that Berman and Baker found much greater success in the 60s on television. They secured the rights to Leslie Charteris’ character The Saint, which became a massively popular show starring Roger Moore. This led to a variety of other series including Department S and The Champions. But I digress.
I’ve just counted and for the second review in a row, I’ve managed to mention the word ‘Hammer’ multiple times for a film not made by that company. This time I’m doing slightly better; 20 uses on Legend of the Werewolf as opposed to 15 here. The problem is, it’s hard to discuss any gothic period horror, or indeed any British B picture from this era, without bringing them up. Such was Hammer’s (make that 16) influence that comparisons are inevitable, and a major reason for that influence was the pen of Jimmy Sangster. Personally I think that’s an awesome legacy.
Release Year: 1958 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Donald Wolfit, Vincent Ball, Barbara Shelley, Victor Maddern, William Devlin, Andrew Faulds , John Le Mesurier, Bryan Coleman, Cameron Hall, Barbara Burke, Bernard Bresslaw, Hal Osmond, Henri Vidon, John Stuart, Colin Tapley, Otto Diamant, Milton Reid | Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster | Director: Henry Cass | Cinematography: Monty Berman | Music: Stanley Black | Producer: Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman