Guest blogger Watching Hammer writes:
“See why you never break down in the woods! See why you never stay at the creepy inn! See why you never, ever, go up to the castle! See…” Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
Who? Director: Don Sharp.
Producer: Anthony Hinds.
Screenplay: John Elder.
How? Hammer’s follow-up to Dracula (1958) and Brides of Dracula (1960) was such a success on both sides of the Atlantic that James Carreras quickly put in motion with Universal plans for a Dracula 3. Anthony Hinds was tasked not only with producing the film, but also with writing a screenplay, which he did so under his usual John Elder pseudonym. The eventual result, however, was far removed from the previous Dracula pictures and Kiss would become a stand-alone vampire film in its own right. Rather than use Terence Fisher (whose last three Gothics had fared poorly at the box-office to direct, Hinds brought in a completely new face – the Australian Don Sharp (who would later go on to direct The Devil Ship Pirates (1964) and Rasputin (1966) for Hammer). Sharp and Hinds cast Clifford Evans from Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Edward de Souza from Phantom of the Opera (1962), Hammer newcomers Noel Willman and Jennifer Daniel (who would both feature only once more for Hammer in The Reptile (1966)), and Barry Warren (later in Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) and Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)) for the film. After the usual struggles with the censors over the sex and violence in the draft screenplay, shooting took place at Bray Studios and on location in Black Park.
What? While travelling in Bavaria on honeymoon, the car of Gerald Harcourt (de Souza) and his wife Marianne (Daniel) runs out of petrol in the midst of a forest. Gerald sets off in search of some, leaving Marianne with the car and luggage. While he is gone she encounters a strange elderly man, Professor Zimmer (Evans), who warns her about a nearby mountainside chateau that it is inhabited by vampires. On Gerald’s return they dismiss the Professor’s story and make their way to a local, all-but-deserted, inn for the night; the owners of which seem strangely troubled. Before long an invitation arrives for Gerald and Marianne to attend dinner at the chateau, where they meet Dr Ravna (Willman) and his son Karl (Warren) and daughter Sabena (Wallis). While outwardly charming, Karl’s piano playing after the meal appears to have a strange, hypnotic effect on Marianne. On leaving, the couple are invited to a masked ball the following night, at which Gerald is drugged and upon awakening finds that Marianne has disappeared, and is unceremoniously thrown out of the chateau. Everyone he meets denies the very existence of his wife and eventually he is forced to team with Professor Zimmer to return to the chateau and discover what has happened to Marianne…and defeat the evil that resides within the walls – Ravna’s vampiric cult!
So? Although originally planned as a straightforward follow-up to Brides of Dracula, Kiss of the Vampire turned into a very different creature indeed along the way – much to its advantage, it must be said. Hind’s intelligent screenplay plays with the vampire myth, drawing out previously hinted-at elements and introducing new ones. In Kiss, the “cult of the vampire” mentioned by Van Helsing in Dracula and Brides is here brought to the fore – the group gathered around Ravna does indeed bear all the hallmarks of a perverse, underground religious cult, with their robes, ceremonies and peculiar ‘tastes’; vampirism as something organised, and perhaps chosen as a way of life, rather than as a random supernatural occurence. And indeed the supernatural element of vampirism is intriguingly toyed with – we are given no explanation as to how Ravna became a vampire, but there are hints of an affliction, an experiment gone wrong, and references to being “riddled with disease.” The occult is brought to the fore, with Zimmer’s calling down evil to defeat evil in a dark ceremony (originally planned for Cushing in Brides). In addition, the vampires in Kiss differ somewhat from previous Hammer appearances – for example, they appear to be able to tolerate daylight much more (which will feature again in the Hammer vampire films of the 1970s), and they lack the otherworldly, animalistic nature evident in Dracula and Brides. Finally, the pervasive Hammer theme of the sheer attractiveness of evil (here embodied in Ravna) facing the weak and ordinary (strongly symbolised here in the broken Zimmer) comes very much to the fore in Kiss.
Don Sharp’s direction of Kiss also moved Hammer’s Gothic vampire films in a different direction. Totally new to the Gothic horror genre, Sharp immediately saw the possibilities it provided in telling a story in a grandly theatrical fashion, cocooned as it was within its own world, with its own rules. He was aided in this immensely by the actors he brought in, and by designer Bernard Robinson. Kiss’ cast included those with a strong theatrical background, in particular Tony award-winning theatre director Noel Willman, and RADA-trained Evans, Warren and de Souza. They bring an utterly convincing seriousness to their roles – Evans as the alcoholic, half-mad but utterly dedicated Zimmer, Willman as the viciously charming and hypnotic Ravna, and Warren as the demonic, sullen and just-plain-creepy Karl. Daniel, Wallis and Black also put in strong female performances – Black in particular as the innkeeper’s daughter Tania, transformed from a young innocent into a vampiric temptress roaming the mist-shrouded graveyard. As for design, Bernard Robinson created some wonderfully effective and evocative sets – notably the decadent Chateau Ravna, used to such good effect by Sharp. The cinematography of Alan Hume is more subdued than that of Jack Asher, but he creates some startling images (such as the masked ball, which so influenced Roman Polanski) and the whole film has a poetic look to it than Hume has a large hand in.
What is particularly notable about Kiss, however, is its air of sexuality – not unusual in a Hammer vampire film, perhaps, but here brought to the forefront. To begin with, the chemistry between de Souza and Daniel works magnificently. Very often the ‘young couple’ in Hammer films fail to convince, but not here. There is a convincingly sexual edge to their on-screen relationship, perfectly portraying their roles as newlyweds. And despite the censors’ best efforts to tone down the film, both before and after shooting, there remain strong hints of sexual perversion, slavery and violence, not to mention incest and barely-controlled lust. Even the bat-attack finale had scenes of the creatues lapping erotically on exposed flesh, much of which was cut. But where Kiss works so well is in its restraint; holding back on the horrors in favour of subtlety- an unusual move for Hammer one might think, but one Sharp felt was right for the film and adjusted the screenplay accordingly. What was important was the story, the development of characters, the creation of mood, the building of tension – so that when the invitable shock/horror comes it is all the more effective. Less is certainly more in this case. And while, yes, the film is let down somewhat at the end by the unconvincing bat attack, what preceeds it more than makes up for this. Hind’s intelligent riff on the vampire theme, Sharp’s wonderful construction of pace, mood, scene and characterisation, some stand-out performances, and poetically beautiful score and design, make Kiss of the Vampire one of Hammer’s more off-beat but satisfying Gothics.
Huh? Thumbs Up: Don Sharp’s masterful direction. Thumbs Down: Yep, those rubber bats!
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