The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
I’ll admit, the non-franchise Hammer vampire movies always felt a little out-of-place. “Kiss of the Vampire” uses the original ending of “Brides of Dracula” and, in general, feels like it’s made up of unused ideas cooked up for “Dracula” films. This has the bizarre effect of making the movie play with the conventions and expectations of the subgenre some. Instead of just one vampire being the primary threat, such as a Dracula or Baron Meinstar, we have to contend with a whole family of vampires. A family that, as the story goes on, seems more and more like a cult. (Right down to the matching white robes.) Our vampire hunter character is even more off-putting and strange then Van Helsing, seeming very off-balanced and dangerous during large portions of the film. He even saves the day by using Satanic magic. (Correcting the point I made in my “Brides of Dracula” review, the vampire hunter uses the exact same cure to fix a vampire bite.) The early presence of an automobile should clue you in that “Kiss of the Vampire” is a little off-beat.
The movie has an excellent opening sequence. A mostly silent funeral procession is broken only when the gravedigger drives the shovel through the coffin lid and into the corpse’s heart, the vampire’s scream shattering the overwhelming silence. The movie never quite lives up to that moment but does a good job of building atmosphere. The audience knows the family is composed of vampires early, during another atmospheric scene where a vampire girl discovers the shovel-impalement from the opening, but the two main characters do not. It’s the classic bomb-under-the-table scenario and works pretty well. The vampire family is nicely neurotic too, with a lot of tension and fear within the family. I also like the quirky inn owners that end up playing an important role in the latter half of the film. The masquerade scene is also a highlight.
Sadly, the movie kind of looses a lot of steam after the girlfriend is kidnapped. Seems like the story starts to go in circles as the husband attempts to break into the castle and rescue his girl only to be kicked back out again. The final scene of magically summoned bats being used to destroy all the vampires sure is a bizarre kicker of an ending. “Kiss of the Vampire” is mostly an off-beat, overlooked little part of the Hammer cannon. It’s a nice counterbalance to all their other vampire films. (7/10)
The Fly (1958)
You know, I loved this movie when I first saw it as a ten-year-old. Absolutely adored it, was obsessed with it for a long time. Along with the Universal monsters, this if the film probably responsible for my horror fandom. Which is really weird, because this film is a melodramatic, campy, stagey film with a standard 1950s moral about man meddling in the affairs of God. The French Canadian setting makes it an even unlikelier favorite of a pre-teen kid obsessed with monsters, dinosaurs, anime babes, and robots.
Oh, but the movie is so successful at what it does. It starts out as a chamber mystery. We begin with a fantastic set-up. A man was crushed in an industrial press by a seemingly sane, loving, calm wife, whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic, developing an obsession with flies. We are well into the movie before we get the flashback that explains exactly the cause of this. What a tasty, catchy set-up. How can you resist that? Vincent Price wasn’t known as a horror star yet and he plays the straight man, along with Inspector Charas, reacting to the increasingly strange events around them, unbelieving and unsure of how to react.
Once we get to the meat of the story, the flashback, things get a little crazier and more overheated. Andre and Helen are such a loving couple who are completely devoted to one another. She is the perfect wife, taking care of the house and kid while Andre toils down in his laboratory, changing the world one invention at the time. They live in this perfect little microcosm, straight out of a 1950s sitcom. Of course, we all know this is going to have a gory ending, but the movie doesn’t build for suspense. Instead this time is used to build up characters and set-up. The flashing teleporter lights come off as very campy and retro now but have a hypnotic angle to it. The movie continues to work as an extremely effective mystery story even in this section. Andre attempts to work out each one of the kinks in his teleporter, discovering new ones, solving old problems, always working forward. The movie gets undeniably campy in scenes… “A stream of cat atoms” being the most obvious moment but the scenes were the couple sit on their front lawn and discuss the relation of science to God also smacks of 1950s moralizing. But you’re still hooked. As unrealistic and arch as it seems, Andre and Helen can’t help but be enduring characters.
Once things go wrong, the movie continues to work like a great page-turner. The Fly is only revealed one little piece at a time. Weren’t not sure what’s going on at first and the movie takes it’s time laying out clues and reveals. The shot of his claw emerging from the white lab coat, even with the melodramatic score playing underneath, remains startling. More effective then the make-up or monster antics is David Hedison’s performance under the make-up. I love the way he illustrates how he’s loosing control over his mind and body. The shot of him grabbing the trembling fly-claw is great. And, of course, the unmasking of the Fly is a classic sequence. The multi-lens shot of Patricia Owens’ screaming face is rightfully iconic. The Fly head design is pretty subtle truthfully, especially compared to the over-the-top creature design in “The Return of the Fly.”
The movie’s conclusion is ultimately an emotional one. Despite their relationship coming off as corny and unrealistic, this is still a successful love story. The sequence of Andre, his human mind succumbing completely to the fly’s brain, scratching out the message of “love you” slowly on the board, the last message he can ever send as he looses his sanity, really does pull at your heart strings. The happy ending is admittedly tacked on but Vincent Price assuring little Philippe that his father was an adventurer and a courageous man feels right within the context of the film’s emotional heart. (It also helps dispel some of the film’s unseemly, reactionary, “He tampered in God’s domain!” tone.)
Honestly, the equally iconic “Help me!” scene comes off as a bit of an afterthought. It wraps up the story’s loose ends and is a fantastic, surreal, image to take the film out on. (The half-human/half-fly make-up ends up predicting the body horror of Cronenberg’s remake.) Maybe it’s the film’s oversized emotions and melodrama, it’s main detractions, that are exactly the thing that made it a beloved film for ten-year-old me. That, along with an understated, hearty Vincent Price performance and some very famous, effective horror scenes. “The Fly,” flaws and all, is a classic. (8/10)