Wednesday, July 22, 2020

KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963) Blu-ray Review

Kiss of the Vampire (1963) d. Don Sharp (UK) (88 min)

When their automobile runs out of fuel on the way to their honeymoon, newlyweds Marianne (Jennifer Daniel) and Gerald Harcourt (Edward de Souza) find themselves stranded in a remote Bavarian forest. Towed by a horse-drawn wagon to the nearest village, they are invited by the hypnotic and aristocratic Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) to attend a masked ball at his nearby castle. When Ravna reveals himself to be the leader of a dark arts-worshipping family of vampires, with an eye on Marianne as their most recent recruit, the young couple is plunged into a nightmare of horror and deception with the tortured Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) their only potential savior.

Freely adapted from Jimmy Sangster’s semi-sequel to Horror of Dracula, "Disciple of Dracula" (as well as a touch of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes), this represents producer Anthony Hinds fourth official screenplay, following The Curse of the Werewolf, Night Creatures, and The Phantom of the Opera, all under his nom de plume John Elder. It also was Hammer’s first non-Dracula effort, following the success of Brides of Dracula, without Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, director Terence Fisher, or even character actor Michael Ripper on hand to shore things up. As such, Kiss of the Vampire has suffered from a perceived second-tier status, making it a most pleasant surprise for the uninitiated and a hidden gem for those in the know.

Australian emigre Don Sharp, who would go on to direct similarly underrated efforts such as Witchcraft (1964), Curse of the Fly (1965), and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), had never directed a horror film before, but he took the job seriously and, at Hinds’ request, undertook a crash course in the “Hammer style.” He clearly learned his lessons astutely, because the resulting feature is a handsome and engaging fantasy piece packed with lush production design (courtesy of resident wunderkind Bernard Robinson) and beguiling females; in contrast to the blonde Daniel, who would go on to appear in John Gilling’s The Reptile for Hammer, we have the raven-haired Isobel Black (Twins of Evil, 10 Rillington Place) as Tania, Ravna’s feral familiar with fiery fangs in full flower. (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls star Dolly Read also appears uncredited as one of Ravna’s disciples.)

The costume ball, one-upped by Roger Corman the following year with his The Masque of the Red Death and brilliantly sent up by Roman Polanski in 1967 for The Fearless Vampire Killers, is a distinct highlight, showcasing Roy Ashton’s gorgeously grotesque masks and wardrobe supervisor Molly Arbuthnot’s beautiful evening gowns. It also provides a sumptuous prelude to Marianne’s seduction by Ravna, which sets the third act – complete with its inventive climax of an army of malevolent bats conjured by Zimmer in an attempt to fight darkness with darkness. This, as well-schooled Hammer fans probably already know, was to be the original ending for Brides of Dracula until Cushing adamantly refused, stating – perhaps rightly so – that it was completely out of character for Van Helsing to go casting mystical spells from ancient tomes. As it turns out, the idea works out quite well here, since we have no such preconceived notions about Zimmer, a desperate man seeking vengeance for the vampirism of his only daughter.

Now, even the most devout Hammer apologist has to admit that that this final scene is better in concept than in realization. The animated bats circling the castle spires is a striking image; once they begin their assault proper, it becomes all too clear that the winged menace entering the windows are obvious puppets on strings being dutifully crashed into by game actors holding them to faces, necks, chests, and breasts and emoting on full throttle. It’s energetic and fun, but more silly than scary, providing an otherwise capable film with an unfortunate anticlimax. (One also has to wonder: if Zimmer has the knowledge to do this all along, why does he wait as long as he does…?)

Evans, so warm and benevolent as Oliver Reed’s adoptive father in Curse of the Werewolf, is equally forceful here as the broken, alcoholic, part-time mystic Zimmer. Possessing the same gruff manner as Andrew Kier’s Father Sandor in Dracula, Prince of Darkness with a deep undercurrent of sadness, his wounded hero is an intriguing substitute for Van Helsing and Evans anchors the film with his estimable gravitas. Willman (The Vengeance of She, The Reptile), reportedly concerned with being perceived as too camp, opts for a limited emotional range within which to play the villainous Ravna, which serves the turn without making a strong impression. 

Souza, who had recently appeared for the studio in their underwhelming The Phantom of the Opera (and would go on to appear opposite Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me), is a suitable as our token leading man (and he also gets one of the film’s best moments when he scrawls an impromptu cross on his chest in his own blood to ward off the undead menace) while Daniel plays squarely within the lines as our resident damsel in distress.

The new 2K scan for Shout! Factory’s latest Blu-ray release allows celebrated cinematographer Alan Hume’s (The Legend of Hell House, Lifeforce, Return of the Jedi, as well as numerous Carry On, James Bond, and Amicus films) daring colored gels to pop like never before, while also giving James Bernard’s thundering score its usual free rein. (Bernard also composed the original waltzes for the ball!)

In addition to the theatrically released 1.85:1, S!F also offers a 1.66:1 aspect version, one that is curiously hidden away in the Special Features section, along with an info-packed commentary by film historians Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr hidden even further away. Why the two versions are not presented equally in the main menu, with the commentaries clearly marked (or why the commentary track is on a separate, unsubtitled version in the first place) is equally puzzling.

We also have ANOTHER hidden commentary track, with authors Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson, on the edited-for-television version, Kiss of Evil. However, considering the extensive changes made for the TV release, which sought to excise all references to sex, blood, or vampires, this at least makes some sort of sense. Howarth and Thompson helpfully point out the myriad trims and additional scenes (17 minutes of new material, if that gives you any idea of what you’re in for), along with an array of insightful intel. It’s not at all the best version of the film to watch, but it’s easily the best way to watch it.

Without the star presence of Lee or Cushing, Kiss of the Vampire might not make any “essential” Hammer viewing lists for newbies. That said, the cabal of Satan-worshipping vampires is a novel idea well-executed by a stellar team of players before and behind the camera. Definitely worth a look for any fan of Gothic horror.

Trivia: The fake bats were, in fact, purchased at Woolworths.


NEW 2K scan of the interpositive in two aspect ratios (1.85:1 And 1.66:1)

Audio commentary with actors Edward De Souza and Jennifer Daniels, moderated by Peter Irving on the 1.85:1 Version

NEW Audio commentary with author/film historian Steve Haberman and filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr on the 1.66:1 Version

NEW “The Men Who Made Hammer: Composer James Bernard” (17 min)

NEW “The Men Who Made Hammer: Production Designer Bernard Robinson” (20 min)

Original Theatrical Trailer & TV Spot TV Version Kiss of Evil (92 min) with optional audio commentary by film historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson (Standard Definition – 1.33.1)

Additional scenes added to the TV version Kiss of Evil (17 min)

Kiss of Evil TV Trailer

Kiss of the Vampire is available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:

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