Review by Thomas Scalzo
Posted on 23 October 2008
Source Unicorn Video, Inc. VHS
Categories 31 Days of Horror V
A graveyard at night. Swirling mists surround a lone tomb. Blood-red credits divulge the title and players. The mist intensifies…the camera inches its way toward the tomb…and…cut to a ’30s frat party. From our sidewalk vantage point, it appears that the ribaldry is flowing and the good times are rolling. But before we have a chance to get to know the revelers, we’re whisked back to the cemetery and a frisky pair of youngsters basking in the unrivaled romantic aura of the dead.
The lovers’ past history is briefly related and their reason for visiting the abode of the dead explained. Just as they’re about to get down to business, though, that tomb from the opening shot slowly begins to open – a gnarled hand reaching inquisitively into the night air – and before you know it were in the midst of a vampire vs. graveyard lothario smackdown, replete with a back-breaking bodyslam on a nearby tombstone.
Though the Hammer Studios devotee in me cringed a bit at the unexpected camp, the very fact that the boneyard battle was so removed from the vampire film standard piqued my interest. After all, I was only a few minutes into the picture and already I had been blessed with a wonderfully atmospheric opening shot and vampire wrestling. When said vampire drags the screaming girl down into his recently vacated crypt, I had high hopes for much more of the same—an athletic vampire handily dispatching foolish collegians in very un-vampiric ways.
Sadly, Grave of the Vampire quickly decides that it does not want to be a fun vampire-bashes-college-kids movie. For the girl is not merely dragged into the crypt to be drained of her lifeblood, she is raped—and, as we soon learn, impregnated. Suddenly, we’re in the hospital watching the poor lass (who somehow survived the ordeal) being forced by the cops to look at mug shots of possible assailants. Needless to say, this abrupt – and dark – shift in tone left me more than a little discomfited, and wistful for the lighthearted vampire movie that wasn’t.
Just as I was about the write the whole thing off, however, the story once again took an unexpected turn. Instead of the expected hunt-down-the-criminal police procedural, we’re offered a montage of the woman’s pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. We learn that whatever it is growing within her is not human, and watch as she devotedly tends to her offspring, even though it is clear that her son is undead. When her numerous attempts to breastfeed the child fail, she realizes she has no choice but to give the little nipper what he wants. After slowly dragging a knife across her chest, she watches in contentment as her boy begins to lap up the drops of blood that spatter on his lips.
Owing both to its unexpectedness and – to my knowledge – originality, this scene once again caused me to change my mind about the film. Perhaps that opening sequence had been shot by a different director, and in a hasty bit of runtime padding, patched onto this more sober narrative. Sure, the fun of vampire wrestling would have been nice, but maybe here was a true undiscovered gem—a contemplative, Martin-esque take on the vampire tale. As the mother-undead son montage continued, and the boy matured, I was convinced I was in for an intriguing tale of a vampire coming of age.
But once again, Grave of the Vampire pulls a fast one. In a flash, the kid is an adult, and the story grinds to a screeching halt. We’re told that he has spent his life searching for his father, and has finally tracked him down—teaching adult education classes at the local college. Apparently, pop’s course on the occult is so incredibly popular that you have to show up extra early to make sure you get a seat, and if you’re caught standing, you can’t stay. Luckily, our hero knows enough about this adult-education musical chairs to secure himself a spot in the class, and settles in to studying his elusive sire.
It was at this moment that I had a revelation—the actor playing the son of the vampire was none other than William Smith, the trigger-happy psycho I’d seen in Piranha, Piranha.1 And just as that plotless abomination found nothing wrong in shifting abruptly from nature documentary to motorcycle race adventure to hired killer manhunt, so too did this Smith vehicle carelessly toy with its audience. While such abrupt narrative transitions can be overlooked if the ensuing tale is worthwhile, the fact that Grave of the Vampire offered up two perfectly agreeable storylines, and then snatched them away from us in order to focus on Smith’s tedious plan to enact vengeance on his father is unforgivable. It’s as if the creative minds at work here wanted to tell the tale of a young vampire growing up, but couldn’t figure out how to do it. So they decided to fill up their film with William Smith making out with loose college women, brooding over how much he hates his father, and hardly ever reminding us that he is a vampire.
It’s a shame that such an interesting horror set-up is squandered in service of what turns out to be an insipid mess of a film, and yet in thinking back on those terrific opening scenes, I’m reminded of why I love watching horror, particularly overlooked or utterly unknown horror. For within even the worst of these films, there is nearly always something worth savoring – a hilarious line of dialogue, an unforgettable death scene, outlandishly inconsistent logic – moments of cinematic ineptitude, and sometimes brilliance, that would have otherwise gone unwatched and unmentioned; moments that somehow mange to linger in the mind long after all the hours of dross have faded from memory. Though I may forget William Smith and his idiotic quest to destroy his father, Grave of the Vampire will live on.
Unicorn Video, Inc.
Father and son—related by Blood! EVERYONE’S BLOOD!
The Dead Don’t Die1975
The Brides Wore Blood1972
Girl in Room 2A1973
Nude for Satan1974
Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare1987
Brides of the Beast1968
Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye1973
The Curse of Bigfoot1976
Dark Night of the Scarecrow1981
Moon in Scorpio1987
The Legend of Hell House1973
Grave of the Vampire1974
Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake1975
Attack of the Beast Creatures1985
Humanoids from the Deep1980