Oh, Mill Creek DVD--every time I'm just about ready to give up on your poor-quality transfers of mostly forgettable public domain dreck, every time I'm almost ready to swear I'll never drop twenty bucks on another fifty movie pack that will never live up to the glories of that 50 Chilling Classics set, you come through with an undiscovered gem to remind me why I've been telling everyone about you for two years running. You're like a bad girlfriend who every now and then comes through with a truly sweet gesture and/or mind-blowing sex. I just can't quit you, baby!
The kicker this time comes from my barely-tapped Night Screams set, which seems to be made up mostly of 1940s poverty row programmers. However, nestled in there among the odd Tod Slaughter film and jungle-woman adventure flicks, this weekend I found John Hayes's 1974 groovy gothic Grave of the Vampire. Was the print bad? Terrible. Was the sound off? You betcha. Were the production values low? But of course. But the flick has that special something that brings a smile to the Vicar's face. Call it heart, call it ambition, call it borderline-incestuous vampire lore starring one of the most distinctive granite-chinned character actors of the 70s and 80s; I call it kismet.
It's the early 1950s somewhere in California, and Caleb Croft (Michael Pataki, whose lengthy filmography includes such roles as Count Dracula in Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, George Martin in Sweet 16, and 'Man Who Moons Courtroom' in 1982's Night Shift) rests uneasy in his tomb. As the lid creaks and shifts, the credits roll over some cool spooky music and gothic fog banks that set a nice tone. Then we're whisked away to a wild college party, where Paul and Leslie (Jay Scott and Kitty Vallacher, memorably credited in the opening crawl as "The Unwilling Mother") are making their excuses so they can sneak off for a little slap and tickle. The partygoers beg them to stay--"Lola Blossom's gonna do a dance, and we got all the freshers dressed up like dogs so they can crawl on their knees and bark at her!"--but our het-up young couple climb in the antique sedan and take off. If I had been Paul and heard that invitation, I guarantee you the movie would have been about an hour and twenty minutes shorter.
Paul and Leslie go straight to the local graveyard, which is strongly implied as the site of their first premarital coupling. ("It was almost on this very spot!" Paul grins, affectionately stroking a gravestone.) He's returned to the scene of the crime to ask Leslie to marry him, an offer she readily accepts, despite the fact that he's clearly fifteen years older than she. Of course Paul couldn't have picked a worse night to make an honest woman of her, as Caleb Croft picks just that moment to rise from his tomb--a bestial, dessicated corpse--and goes on the expected rampage that leaves Paul bent backwards over a gravestone and drained of blood. Apparently quenching his bloodlust makes Caleb hornay, and Leslie, her heart as broken as her lover's spine, is dragged screaming into a convenient open grave to sate the vampire's OTHER wicked desires.
Back at the station, Lietuenant Panzer (Eric Mason, who had a little vampire experience thanks to his appearance a year earlier in Scream Blacula Scream!), is one of those refreshing investigators who doesn't let himself get bogged down in traditional police work routine. He considers the facts--one dead, drained body, one traumatized, molested girl, and one conspicuously empty tomb--and immediately jumps to the only sane conclusion: VAMPIRE ON THE LOOSE! Seriously, this is his first and ONLY theory! Lucky for him it's absolutely correct. Meanwhile, the understandably unstable Leslie finds out she's pregnant and persuades herself it must be Paul's baby. She also becomes BFFs with strung-out looney Olga (Lieux Dressler), who convinces her the doctors are full of shit when they say she should abort the baby (the doc's bedside manner her is exemplary: "What's growing inside you isn't alive!...What's inside your womb is not a human being, it's a parasite!") and the two women leave the hospital together, determined to birth that baby come hell or high water.
After Croft kills another local, we're all set-up for the Cop vs. the Armies of the Undead thriller of the sort most of us have seen more than once. However, Hayes and co-writer David Chase have a few twists up their sleeves--after meticulously setting Panzer up as the vampire-fighting hero, they have him wander by the Croft Crypt to do some investigatin'. Once there he's surprised by the vampire himself (now wearing a cape that he did not have in his coffin, just to remove any confusion, I guess) who chokes the cop out, opens the concrete sarcophagus, and crushes the lieutenant's head under the lid! Awesome! Myah, who's yer messiahr now, see?
Nine months later Leslie is giving birth to her little bundle of joy, with Olga dressed in a period pilgrim outfit to serve as midwife. The baby is born with gray skin and an aversion to milk, to the point that even Olga must suggest they take him to the town doctor to find out what (the fuck) is up. But when Leslie, baby uselessly pressed to her breast, reaches for a super sharp paring knife to peel an apple (like you do), the resultant blood splatter falls on junior's lips, and I bet you can guess what happens after that. Some creepy kooky visuals here include Leslie cutting her breast to give her baby suck, the blood splatters around the hungrily licking baby's mouth, and Mom taking a syringe full of arterial goodness and using it to fill a baby bottle!
Suddenly we get a montage of the little tyke growing up, complete with a Wonder Years-style voice over from the grown man he becomes. We see he can walk around in daylight but prefers the shadows, and never quite "fit in" with the rest of his pals--which only makes sense, as he's half human/half vampire, with the strengths and weaknesses of each. On her deathbed mom spills the beans and tells young James about his ill-fated nativity, at which point he swears he'll hunt down the vampire who raped his mother and make him pay for his crimes! Hey, Wesley Snipes, are you taking notes?
James "Don't Call Me Blade" Eastwood is played by bodybuilder/character actor William Smith, whose face should be instantly recognizable to any fan of action movies of the late 70s and 80s. The granite chin, the chiseled, squinty eyes, the flat geometric planes of his face--it's hard to imagine a tougher looking fellow, and it's not surprising he's had very few leading roles, since he seems tailor-made to play the villain/henchman/tough-as-nails military type (as he did memorably in his role as General Mintz in Memorial Valley Massacre). Here he's the romantic lead, though, and does reasonably well lending a Clint Eastwood-esque intensity to his role of fearless vampire hunter.
James tracks Croft to a university campus, where he's taken to teaching extremely well-attended night classes in mythology and folklore. The first night James meets roommates Anita Jacoby (Diane Holden) and Ann Arthur (Lyn Peters). Swingin' folklore major Anita comes on to James hard, demonstrating a shared interest in the infamous Salem Witch Trials-era vampire John Croydon, who James secretly believes to be Croft. However, James only has eyes for Literature teacher Ann, and it's not long before he's got her back at his apartment, drinking wine and doing the horizontal mambo to the music of their beating hearts. (A throwaway bit where Ann finds a half-eaten plateful of raw meat with a knife and fork on the side is a nice touch.)
Meanwhile, Croft knows James is onto him, though for what purpose he doesn't yet dream. There are a couple of cool vampire rampage scenes thrown in here, as Anita confronts Croft with his identity and demands he make her his vampire bride, only to have her throat slit for her trouble, and another borderline-hilarious bit where Croft gets very testy with a sassy librarian MILF who won't lend him the book he wants.
What's very interesting to me at this point is the clearly intentional Oedipal twist on the vampire/revenge plot here. James is clearly Oedipus Rex, out to kill his father for having fucked his mom. This is further underlined by Croft's realization that Ann is the reincarnation of his first wife Sarah, who was burned for a witch in Salem. Of course James is schtupping Ann, the wife of his father, bringing the whole classical reference full circle. Like I say, a neat take on the convention, and one I don't believe I've seen before.
Things take a turn for the MAD when Croft sets up a seance for some of his more promising students, secretly hoping to summon Sarah's spirit so that his wife can permanently possess Ann's body and they can be together forever. One step ahead, James uses his vamp-mojo to summon Anita's spirit instead, leading to a crazy scene where Ann speaks in Anita's voice, taunting Croft and offering still to be his vampire bride if he'll just kill Ann already so she can take permanent residence. James breaks that up with a quickness, and once Croft has disposed of the rest of the party guests, it's time for the big final confrontation between father and son.
"I'm your SON!"--all bets are off and a truly epic battle begins. I'm talking five minutes of brutal, Naschy-meets-Roddy Piper in THEY LIVE style violence. During the course of this tussle Croft gets whipped with chains, James gets set ON FIRE, and the buff beefy son GORILLA SLAMS his dad down the ornate mansion stairs! Of course it can only end with Oedipus the King triumphant, but it appears James has neglected one little piece of dhampyr lore related to the inheritance due the son upon the father's death...
I enjoyed Grave of the Vampire from the beginning on, but that wild finish is what pushed it over the edge into Mad Movie love. Freudian psychology, subverted genre expectations, and a final battle to send you out of the grindhouse cheering--what's not to love? If there had just been a little more gore and/or nudity (the movie falls squarely into the PG-horror category), it would have been a 3-thumb no-brainer. Still, I can't give it less than 2.85 thumbs for sheer passion and entertainment value. I don't know if this one movie is worth buying the whole Mill Creek Night Screams set for, but it's definitely worth seeking out on its own if you get the chance.
A few more images from Grave of the Vampire (1974):