Blood of the Vampire is one of those movies that is remarkable in its obscurity. It always gets at least a mention in various genre histories, as a thoughtful, different slant on vampires - but it rarely seems to go beyond that. Its very determination to be different fairly forces it into footnote status. I didn't notice any Interwebs hubbub to get Blood out on DVD, as with other genre oddities... heck, I didn't even know it had come out on DVD until I started narrowing down my options for this roundtable.
It all begins well, and traditionally enough, in "Transylvania - 1874". A title card superimposed over a moody matte painting informs us that "The most loathsome scourge ever to afflict this Earth was that of the Vampire. Nourishing itself on warm, living blood, the only known method of ending a vampire's reign of terror was to drive a wooden stake through its heart." And by golly, that is exactly what happens, as a canvas bag containing a body is thrown into an open grave and a burly executioner type hammers a stake into said heart, providing a properly scarlet background for our title. After everyone leaves, the requisite deformed hunchback servant kills the lone gravedigger and makes off with the body.
After that, everything starts to get a little non-standard.
The hunchback, whom we shall get to know as "Carl" (Victor Maddern) shows up at a local bar where the night's festivities are in full bawdy Hammer swing (though this is not a Hammer movie - but we're getting ahead of ourselves), causing everything to come to a dead stop. Except for one drunken doctor, who is (naturally) the fellow Carl has come to fetch. Reluctantly, the dissipated fellow leaves and accompanies Carl to some remote location, where it seems his agreed-upon task is nothing less than transplanting a new heart into the body from the first scene. After the operation is successfully completed, Dr. Dipso makes the all-too-common mistake of minor characters in these things, and threatens to go to the authorities unless he is given more money. Well, once he starts with the extortion talk, we're pretty sure Carl will be knifing him, and the movie does not disappoint.
Skip ahead to "Carlstadt - Six Years Later", and the trial of one Dr. John Pierre (and what a mixture of English and French is that name ) (and, oh yes, played by Vincent Ball). One of Pierre's patients has died, after Pierre attempted something radical to save him, and the court is shocked, shocked! that a doctor would do such a thing. A letter to Pierre's mentor prompts a return message that amounts to "Lock him up and throw away the key", so Pierre is sentenced to ten years in a penal colony. His fiancee, Madeleine (Barbara Shelley) vows to visit Pierre's mentor herself, so she misses everything when Pierre is transferred, instead, to a "Prison for the Criminal Insane", which has one of the better evil-face facades, not bettered until The Amityville Horror.
The Prison's governor, Dr. Callistratus (Donald Wolfitt) - who is universally feared by his inmates (and small wonder, as he's that dead body we saw in the first scene) - grants Pierre trustee status, removing him from his cell with the one other sane prisoner in the place, the wrongly-convicted Kurt (William Devlin), and into his own room. Callistratus needs a fellow doctor to assist him in his experiments with human blood. It is here, almost thirty minutes into the movie, that we discover the nature of Pierre's crime - he attempted to save his patient with a blood transfusion, but in 1880, the concept of blood typing was unknown (and would be for another 20 years). Callistratus, though has begun to suss out the blood group thing (well, come on, he also figured out transplant surgery), and sets Pierre to typing the blood of every inmate. Then Callistratus says, they will begin their greater task - isolating a previously unknown blood group with terrible, degenerative properties.
What we know (and Pierre and the rest of the inmates only suspect) is that Callistratus is draining certain of his prisoners of their blood and transfusing it into himself. His housekeeper makes the mistake of sneaking into the governor's private lab during one of these sessions, which gives Callistratus the opportunity to expand his experiment's horizons into female blood groups.
Concurrent with all this, Madeleine brings the mentor in question to the court at Carlstadt, who testifies that he received no letter concerning Pierre's situation, and certainly made no reply. The Superintendent of Prisons makes a worried visit to Callistratus, revealing that the two of them conspired to have Pierre convicted and sent to the Prison for the Criminal Insane. Callistratus, fearing to lose his assistant, plays for time by informing Pierre that his retrial has been turned down, and he must serve out his sentence. Desperate, Pierre attempts an escape with Kurt, with the result that Kurt is savaged mercilessly by vicious guard dogs and Callistratus is able to inform "the authorities" that both men died in the escape attempt.
Up to this point Blood has been a somewhat plodding combination of horror movie and prison flick, but now, with a half-hour to go, things begin to move swiftly. Madeleine manages to get the job as replacement for Callistratus' unfortunate housekeeper, so she can investigate Pierre's supposed death on her own; the two accidentally see each other in the hall during her interview. Karl recognizes the beautiful woman from the locket he stole from the head guard (who stole it from Pierre), and he has the traditional weakness of loyal, deformed hunchbacked servants for beautiful women. Carl sees Pierre hiding in Madeleine's room (because the hero chose the stupidest hiding place possible, near a mirror). The corrupt Superintendent comes to whine some more and recognizes Madeleine when she arrives to serve sherry, and later tries to rape her in her room, only being saved by Carl (go, deformed hunchback, go!). Things come to a head when everybody winds up in Callistratus' laboratory - including the Superintendent, who, having learned nothing from our earlier idiot, announced to Callistratus that he will be making a complete report to the authorities. KTANG! Vampire chow!).
Callistratus starts monologuing, explaining to Pierre that superstitious natives thought him a vampire because of his experiments and put him to death like one; he cheated death by infecting himself with a rare blood culture he had isolated that kept him at a low level of life, even though his heart was destroyed, until the heart transplant was performed. The culture had the unfortunate side effect of afflicting him with the degenerative blood condition he has been trying so desperately to cure. Now he feels he has found the proper treatment, and wheels out the still-living Kurt, whom he has infected with his disordered blood. Callistratus intends to perform a total blood transfusion between Kurt and Madeleine, and if he survives... well, that's why Callistratus is keeping Pierre around. The endangering of Madeleine causes Carl to finally flip, earning him a bullet from Callistratus. So much for faithful servants.
Kurt rouses himself from his coma long enough to grapple with Callistratus and allow Pierre to overpower him. Pierre forces Callistratus to walk them out of the prison, and then exhibits the proper time to inform a bad guy that one is going to the authorities. Which is made rather moot by the half-dead Carl releasing the guard dogs, and Callistratus finding out that heart transplants don't do much good when you're torn to shreds by dobermans. The end.
Blood of the Vampire looks and feels like a lower-budget Hammer movie, which is largely explained by the writer, Jimmy Sangster, who was responsible for a lot of Hammer's more durable output in the late 50's to early 60's. It was produced by a promising young outfit called Artistes Alliance, who also produced The Giant Behemoth and, less notably, The Strange World of Planet X. I could see Sangster trying to plot a Dracula sequel with Blood's beginning conceit, but the modern medical angle - steampunk as it is in this context - would have taken Hammer's Dracula series out of the supernatural morality play and into something much, much stranger. possibly harder to market, certainly to continue as a franchise. There is no shortage of medical vampire-type stories, but they never seem to be tremendous successes.
The actors do their jobs well, but it has to be pointed out that Sangster, for the most part, hasn't given them more than a dimension each to play out. Pierre is strong-jawed and determined, Madeleine is pretty and determined, Kurt is shaggy and determined... As ever, it's the bad guys in a horror movie that get most of the attention. Madden's mute, hunchbacked Carl I find the most interesting, as he actually winds up being most sympathetic, and that is actually telegraphed in earlier scenes. Sadly, sometime's Carl's prosthetic makeup looks hurriedly slapped-on and his arms magically transform from twisted and useless to strong and formidable, as the scene demands. Wolfitt is a strong presence, with an authoritative, plummy voice. But he simply seems rather stocky to be a vampire... but then, of course, he's not really a vampire...
In all, it is possibly Blood's determination to not be pigeonholed as a vampire flick that works against it. It is, in effect, a mad scientist movie, with the monster being the scientist himself; but with a title like Blood of the Vampire... well the story is concerned with the Blood of a so-called Vampire, but... but...
I'm going to stop there before I get too cynical about audiences and their seeming inability to think (I just deleted two paragraphs complaining about it). Blood of the Vampire tried to do something different, but the attempt only goes so far. Past the Frankensteinian early surgical horrors, and its prison setting, it doesn't do much more than trot out some standard pulp cliches - mad doctors, damsels in distress, lovestruck hunchbacks. But then, remember where we are: The Bad Movie Report. Those are the things that make for solid entertainment for yours truly - and chances are, if you are here, for you, too. For us, even minimal changes wrought on a familiar old friend can make that friend exciting and new, and that is no bad thing.
Let's hear it for beefy vampires!
- November 30, 2008