Directors: Henry Cass, Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman
Dark Sky Films/MPI

The creative filmmaking team of Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman had been mounting productions in Britain as early as the late 1940s. A decade later, when Hammer Films’ released their pivotal CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, a new era in cinema had been born and the duo jumped on an opportunity to make a similar exercise in exploitation. Released the same year as HORROR OF DRACULA, BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE employed Hammer’s primary fantasy screenwriter Jimmy Sangster to help deliver a gothic chiller which would be shot in color, allowing the bright red stuff to flow freely. Dark Sky Films now presents this significant genre work, paired with THE HELLFIRE CLUB (yet another Baker/Berman/Sangster collaboration), as part of their “Drive-In Double Feature” line.

BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE tells of an 18th century Transylvanian scientist who is accused of being a vampire and condemned to death (complete with a stake in the heart). The crippled hunchback Carl (Victor Maddern) pays a drunken doctor to revive the scientist by giving him a heart transplant. Now fully rejuvenated, he assumes the name Callistratus (Donald Wofit) and becomes governor of a castle-like prison for the criminally insane. Suffering from anemia, Callistratus performs blood experiments on the inmates and is involuntarily aided by Dr. John Pierre (Vincent Ball), who has imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Pierre’s escape attempt is botched, and when he is granted his freedom from the courts system, Callistratus lies and covers up by proclaiming him dead. Not convinced of this, Pierre’s lovely lady Madeline (Barbara Shelley) takes a job inside the prison in an attempt to save her lover, but she’ll have to come face to face with the crazed governor and his wicked experiments before getting the opportunity to do so.

The film can be sluggish at times, but anyone who enjoys this sort of British goth will most likely find it absorbing enough. Sangster’s script does not have much at all to do with vampires (although an animated bat is suspiciously seen fleeing a coffin at the beginning) but more so with diseases of the blood, and he tosses in enough mad scientist and Frankensteinan elements to keep things lively. If you take CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN as the model, the film absolutely captures the look of early Hammer horror, and is never afraid to show a bit of gore, boasting such horrific scenes as a man being torn apart by quartet of vicious dogs, or a poor soul being kept alive on a slab as a one-armed blood-drained torso. Donald Wolfit has often been accused as going through the motions here, but he actually makes for a menacing enough presence, and his appearance is not unlike a 1940s era Bela Lugosi. Victor Maddern’s droopy eyed monstrosity is not the finest make-up job you’ll ever witness, but it’s the film’s most enduring image, gracing the pages of numerous monster mags in the years to follow. Barbara Shelley, who had already made an impressive genre appearance in CAT GIRL, defines grace and elegance and would soon go on to become one of Hammer’s most popular leading ladies of the 1960s, landing roles in such films as THE GORGON, DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNES and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT.

Taking the place in 1700s, THE HELLFIRE CLUB tells of young boy who breaks off from his family estate with his mother, escaping his sadistic father. The mother is killed in a stagecoach accident, and the boy eventually takes residence with a group of circus performers. The boy in question, Jason (Keith Mitchell) is now grown up and learns of his father’s passing. He makes his way home to claim his birthright as Lord of Netherden Castle only to discover that his nasty cousin Thomas (Peter Arne) is assuming to be the rightful heir and running a secret society called The Hellfire Club, holding orgies and other depravities in private. Jason is faced with a conspiracy against him, but cleverly plots to overcome his rival relation, even forming an alliance and romancing the red-haired beauty Isobel (Adrienne Corri, VAMPIRE CIRCUS) to do so.

Based on the activities of the same-name infamous club which actually existed centuries ago, the film downplays the kinky den-of-sin activities and instead concentrates on being an adventurous swashbuckling romp somewhat in the vein of Hammer’s 1960s "pirate" features. It succeeds on that level, with a lot of continuous action, a good amount of swordplay and a fair amount of borderline nudity on display. The production values are very handsome, and the cast seems to be having a grand time. Mitchell is a likable enough hero, put familiar character actor Arne (THE BLACK TORMENT, THE OBLONG BOX) is great as the wicked, obnoxious dandy. Proving there are no small parts only small actors, Peter Cushing has an excellent cameo as a seemingly snooty and useless lawyer who later redeems himself. Rounding out the cast are a number of familiar faces from the Hammer/British horror school, including Skip Martin, Miles Matheson and Francis Matthews. Martin Stephens (VILLAGE OF THE DAMMNED, THE INNOCENTS) plays Jason as a boy.

Both BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE and THE HELLFIRE CLUB are presented in anamorphic transfers. Letterboxed at 1.85:1, BLOOD sports the “Universal-International” logo with a windowboxed title sequence. The source print does have some minor wear and grain, but the Eastman colors look pretty strong, and the overall image (this is the best the film has ever looked in terms of video releases or TV broadcast) is good, if a tad dark in spots. The 1.85 framing holds up the compositions quite well though it looks tight on the bottom in some scenes. The mono audio sounds absolutely fine. HELLFIRE is presented in 2.35:1, and except for some minor print blemishes, looks fabulous with bright colors and a great level of detail. The mono audio here is also fine. Optional English subtitles are included for each title. Both films had racier scenes filmed for “continental” export versions (BLOOD’s additions are presumably lost) but are not included here; what is presented in the standard, uncut British versions.

Included on BLOOD is a running commentary with Jimmy Sangster and Robert S. Baker (his ex partner Monty Berman passed away only this year), moderated by Marcus Hearn. Anyone interested in British horror is going to want to give this a listen, as the gentleman not only discuss the film in question, but also similar projects that they were involved with at the time, as well as the topic of censorship and what a “continental” version was all about. Both movies are accompanied by biographies (written by Chris Gullo) and if you watch the two features as one entire “drive-in” program, you’ll not only be treated to vintage concession stand films, but also trailers for such other Dark Sky titles like HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER, THE HELLFIRE CLUB, DOG EAT DOG, THE SOLDIER and KILL BABY KILL (and boy is the particular trailer a stunner!). (George R. Reis)