It’s hard to believe, but there are interesting and unique vampire movies outside biggies like NOSFERATU, DRACULA and INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. Case in point: GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE, a no-budgeter from the seventies that’s lots better than its tawdry packaging would suggest. The non-budget is a hindrance, but the film’s constantly mutating storyline, increasingly eerie atmosphere and graphic violence make for a true rarity: a unique take on a hidebound genre.
GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE played the drive-in circuit back in 1974 and, outside a minor cult following, has been mostly forgotten. It joins the likes of DEATHDREAM (1972), ALICE, SWEET ALICE (1976) and MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH (1976) as a prime example of a seemingly unassuming drive-in programmer that manages to overcome its limitations, budgetary and otherwise (see also the low budget 1972 Spanish flick THE DRACULA SAGA, which utilizes, effectively, one of GOTV’s more intriguing motifs: a vampire baby!).
Oh, and another thing: the film based on a novel by David Chase, creator of THE SOPRANOS, who also co-wrote the screenplay.
The script is a hodgepodge affair, impossible to satisfactorily summarize. Employing a number of different plot strands that never quite mesh, the story’s a mess, and yet it somehow works-though not initially (in defiance of that old “if nothing happens in the first ten minutes, nothing’s gonna happen” credo). It starts out inauspiciously, with a young couple making out in a graveyard(!) just when Kroft, a centuries old vampire, is awakening from a crypt. Kroft wastes no time in killing the man and raping the woman (the rape, like many of the film’s nastier moments, takes place largely offscreen in the video version, although it may be more graphic in the original). From there, the story takes another uninspiring turn as two stock detectives institute a none-too-exciting search for Kroft; thankfully, this particular plot strand doesn’t last long, as Kroft offs ’em both and his rape victim gives birth to a baby vamp who only drinks blood. The story here undergoes yet another twist as the kid grows into a good-guy vampire and goes in search of his father.
It’s here, about forty minutes into the film, that the main plot strand kicks in, though there are still a number of twists in store. Kroft’s grown child finds himself in a college course taught by Kroft himself. It seems the not-so-good professor hasn’t lost his sexual appetite, as he seduces and brutally murders several of his female students. His reign of terror is threatened, however, when he foolishly allows a colleague to conduct a séance that calls up the spirit of Kroft’s slain wife, who has not been resting in peace! A bloodbath ensues, topped off by an outrageous fight to the death between father and son.
Co-writer, director and editor John Hayes was one of the most prolific exploitation filmmakers of the seventies (whose best known film, apart from this one, is probably the 1977 Christopher Lee headliner END OF THE WORLD). He uses all the standard Z-movie tricks, from billowing smoke (or “mist”) to obnoxiously overwrought music cues (so we’ll grasp the full horror of the given situation) to the presence of drive-in mainstay William Smith (veteran of far too many exploiters to list here) in the main role. Hayes also, in the film’s most effective moments, utilizes restraint and understatement in a way that would make Val Lewton proud. Such scenes are memorably contrasted with depictions of unflinching brutality, particularly in the finale, where the eerie ambiance of a séance gives way to one of the most relentless fight sequences in horror movie history.
GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE
Clover Films/Pyramid Entertainment, Inc.
Director: John Hayes
Producer: Daniel Cady
Screenplay: David Chase, John Hayes
(Based on a novel by David Chase)
Cinematography: Paul Hipp
Editor: John Hayes
Cast: William Smith, Michael Pataki, Lyn peters, Diane Holden, Kitty Vallacher, Eric Mason, Margaret Fairchild