Hammer, this ain’t
I’d been warned that “Blood of the Vampire” is little more than a faux-Hammer movie. But I’ve always needed to see it, for one reason: Victor Maddern. He plays Carl, the mute monster-ish guy with the Joey Ramone hairstyle and droopy eyeball. Despite “BOTV’s” underwhelming reputation, publicity photos of Maddern in action were a staple of monster magazines when I was growing up in the 1960s. He looked pretty gruesome. I had to see this movie.
It turns out “they” were right. Henry Cass‘ “Blood of the Vampire” is pretty lame. I mean, it’s watchable. It has great costuming and sets and music and even typography. It’s in color. (Make that “colour.”) It’s gory. Especially for 1958. It opens with a neat-o staking. But the film has two problems.
One is the script. Yes, it was penned by Jimmy Sangster, the writer behind most of the early Hammer Studio classics: “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957), “Horror of Dracula” (1958), “Revenge of Frankenstein” (1958), “The Mummy” (1959), “The Brides of Dracula” (1959). So this guy knows horror. But “Blood of the Vampire” is, at heart, less a horror movie than an adventure movie — almost a swashbuckler at times — with horror trappings.
The essence of the plot has wrongly convicted doctor John Pierre (Vincent Bell) imprisoned in a “hospital” for the criminally insane, where inmates are experimented upon and tortured. The hospital is located in a remote castle guarded by vicious dogs. John’s fiancee, Madeleine (Barbara Shelley), infiltrates the castle by posing as a servant.
In this sense, “Blood of the Vampire” has elements of non-supernatural films like “Captain Blood” (1935), “Devil’s Island” (1939), “Island of Doomed Men” (1940) and “Bedlam” (1946). Even the title vampire is more of a “medical” vampire, like the ones played by Humphrey Bogart in “The Return of Dr. X” (1939) and John Beal in “The Vampire” (1957). What gives, Jimmy?
Which brings us to the film’s second problem: Donald Wolfit, who plays the aforementioned vampire, Callistratus. Wolfit, a CBE recipient, was an eminent Shakespearean actor, which doesn’t always translate when you’re playing a vampire. (I say “doesn’t always” because, after all, William Marshall was a great Othello and a great Blacula.)
Simply put, Wolfit is just not cool. There’s nothing cool about him. In appearance and demeanor, Wolfit comes off more like a corpulent professor who takes delight in being sadistic to his students, than a proper neck-biting vampire. His voice reeks of port and privilege. His getup consists of white face makeup, combed-up eyebrows, paste-on Elvis sideburns, and a costume-shop widow’s peak. His blood-stained apron is too snug, leaving nothing to the imagination, belly wise.
Still, the blame lies as much with the script as the casting. Christopher Lee himself couldn’t have saved this thing without a rewrite. Callistratus’ death scene is the kicker. He dies of … dog bites. It’s certainly one of the most ignominious endings for a movie vampire.
And yet, I dig the movie. It’s Hammer-ish enough for me. I could rewatch it, say, every 10 years from here on out. That comes out to, I figure, two more viewings.
Does Maddern’s Carl deliver as promised? I say yes. In addition to the droopy eye and bad hair, Carl has gnarled hands; hairy knuckles; he can’t speak; he walks with a pronounced limp; and he takes orders from a fat, kind-of vampire. Nothing’s going right for the guy. But in the great horror-movie tradition of Quasimodo, Eric, Frankenstein’s monster, King Kong, and Lobo from “Bride of the Monster,” Carl only wants to be loved.
‘BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE’
Starring Donald Wolfit as Callistratus; Vincent Bail as John Pierre; Barbara Shelley as Madeleine; and Victor Maddern as Carl
Written by Jimmy Sangster | Cinematography by Monty Berman
Produced by Robert S. Baker and Berman | Directed by Henry Cass