A favorite at drive-in theaters in the early 1970s, and subsequently a staple of late-night local television, John Hayes’ independent vampire pic GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE makes its anamorphic DVD debut courtesy of Retromedia (who had previously released the film as part of a triple feature horror disc).
Somewhere in New England in 1940, the young couple of Paul (Jay Scott, THE CUT-THROATS) and Leslie (Kitty Villacher, DEATHMASTER) go to a cemetery to make out in the nighttime hours (with Paul taking the opportunity to successfully propose to his sweetheart). At the same time, the grave of Caleb Croft (Michael Pataki, THE BAT PEOPLE) — a known murderer who was accidentally electrocuted to death — is interrupted, as his crusty corpse rises in search of fresh blood. Caleb makes his way to the couple’s car, pulling out Paul and crushing him to death by throwing him (back first) on top a heavy tombstone. A worse fate is in store for Leslie, as she is dragged into an empty grave and raped by the undead assailant, who flees the scene before sunrise to find shelter and commit further bloodshed. Leslie ends up in a hospital, pregnant with what she believes is Paul’s child (not!). The doctor strongly advises her to have an abortion, as what’s growing inside her is an inhuman parasite. She refuses, leaving the hospital in the care of mothering roommate Olga (Lieux Dressler, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS) who acts as a midwife, delivering the baby herself in a bedroom. When the mother quickly realizes that the gray-skinned child’s only satisfying nourishment is through human blood, she extracts it from various parts of her body to feed it.
Some thirty years later, Leslie passes away and her has grown up to be the rather healthy looking James Eastman (William Smith, CHROME AND HOT LEATHER), who is presumably half vampire (he is able to go out on the sunlight, but likes to munch on bloody raw steaks). It’s been Eastman’s lifelong mission to track down his murderous old man, who constantly moves from place to place and has managed to elude him over the years. Croft (who is believed to have been born centuries earlier as Charles Croyden) is now calling himself Professor Lockwood, and teaching a night class on the occult in which Eastman attends, verbally raising his suspicions by calling out the subject of vampires. Eastman becomes romantically involved with classmate Anne (Lyn Peters, FEAR NO EVIL), who happens to remind Croft of his former vampire bride; but its Anne’s flirtatious roommate Anita (Diane Holden, BLACK STARLET) who offers herself up to Croft in exchange for vampirism, but she just ends up another one of his many victims. Anne and Eastman attend a séance hosted by Croft, and it’s there that his true undead identity is revealed — Eastman in turn exposes that he’s the vampire’s long lost illegitimate offspring as an epic confrontation breaks out that nearly takes the house down with it.
One of the things that has given GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE some notoriety over the years is that its screenplay was written by a young David Chase, some years before he would become story editor on the classic “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” series (of which he wrote eight episodes for), and long before he created HBO’s pop culture phenomenon mob drama “The Sopranos” (Chase just recently directed his first feature, NOT FADE AWAY, about a 1960s Jersey rock group who try to make it big). Chase’s screenplay (which is supposedly based on his own novel “The Still Life”) is filled with unconventional ideas that may seem more routine today, but in 1972 were a far cry from the usual Hollywood vampire movie techniques. The whole idea of a vampire impregnating a young woman in a cold empty grave, only to have her pale offspring thirst for blood, is pretty unsettling, and this makes way for shock scenes of the mother cutting the top of her breast or sticking a needle in her arm to fill a baby bottle with the red stuff (there’s also close-ups of drips of blood hitting the infant’s lips). When Eastman is a tormented adult searching for his murderous and monstrous father (who he obviously detests), there continues an interesting, if more standard storyline that carries the film after the first 30 minutes or so (when Smith’s adult character is introduced and the events take place in the present).
Reportedly made for $50,000 in 11 days (which is pretty amazing, considering this is better than just about any Hollywood vampire flick made in the last 25 years), GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE was obviously influenced by the box office success of COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) (as was 1973’s LEMORA), and the film tends to have the creepy, very early 1970s feel associated with YORGA and its 1971 sequel. The extremely low budget shows and the film was instantly dated (the awkward "swinging" party scene set in a cramped apartment, and those ultra wide collars), but it has a certain Californian gothic, gloomy atmosphere about it which is obvious from the beginning — Croft’s grave is opened to reveal his cobweb-filled living corpse, with a juicy spider and a couple of salamanders tossed on top for extra effect. The old age vampire make-up (he gets younger as he drinks blood) on Pataki (complete with a set of razor-sharp YORGA imitation fangs) is effective and the chilling score is by none other than Jaime Mendoza-Nava, who composed for numerous low budget horror films, including many for director Charles Pierce (THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN).
GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE has a sort of crudeness about it, and there are evident plot holes (for example, the jump from Anita being found dead in the shower to a séance in a mansion where the climax takes place). The late director John Hayes specialized in trashy exploitation and horror, also helming the forgotten zombie opus GARDEN OF THE DEAD (which went out on the lower half of double bill with GRAVE). Hayes handles the standout scenes well, including the death of a police lieutenant (Eric Mason, KISS OF THE TARANTULA) who has his head smashed by a crypt’s lid, the ineffective bullet shots going right through the vampire’s torso from the gun of a trigger-happy macho séance guest (Carmen Argenziano, THE HOT BOX) and the final confrontation between Croft and Eastman and the obvious stuntmen it takes to execute wild sequence on screen. It might be jarring to see sitcom regular Pataki as a very nasty vampire, but he’s great in the role, giving Croft the right amount of snarl and cockiness (Pataki would also have a prolific career in exploitation, in front of and behind the camera). Smith is miscast as the half vampire Eastman, but he doesn’t do a bad job, even when he’s overacting (“I’m you’re son!!!”), and he gives the character some pathos when he has to resist the temptation to go for the throat of a would-be human victim, namely the woman he is currently bedding.
Released theatrically by an independent company known as Entertainment Pyramid, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE was shed of some of its original filmed gore and given a PG rating by the MPAA (although some sources and advertising materials show it as being Rated R). Although it was still playing in theaters and drive-ins years after it was made, American International Television had sold it to TV fairly quickly (the reason why MGM still has cable rights), and the film appeared on the late-night and Saturday afternoon small screen for years. Believed to be in the public domain, the film had a number of VHS releases in the 1980s and 1990s from various companies, and even a few DVD releases, most of which were of the TV print (like Alpha Video’s release). Retromedia had previously released the film on DVD as part of the “Morella’s Blood Flood” triple feature disc (with GURU THE MAD MONK and HOUSE OF EVIL) in a non-anamorphic, letterboxed transfer.
This new Retromedia/Bayview single disc of GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (which carries the film's original poster art on its cover) offers a new High Definition transfer mastered from an original 35mm release print. The film is presented here in a fitting 1.85:1 aspect ratio (though the back cover mistakenly states 1.78:1) with anamorphic enhancement, and judging from the brief restoration comparison (included as an extra) some extensive clean-up was done on the print source, so speckling and other debris are virtually non-existent. There are still a lot of vertical lines on display, as well as some surface noise, but the transfer remains fairly sharp throughout (with occasional softness) and colors are stable and distinct, if not bold and showy (it looks as though there was some color boosting during the transfer). The mono English track (no subtitle options) has a bit of scratchiness and pops attributed to the source print, but it’s nothing too unbearable and the sound is generally satisfactory. The version presented here is pretty much complete as far as the U.S. theatrical release goes, but it’s still missing some extra bits of gore (including Croft sucking the blood off the face and neck of one of his victims, and hand scooping some blood from a dead prostitute) which surfaced on a German VHS release some years ago. Aside from the restoration demonstration and some trailers for other Retromedia releases (including the upcoming WONDER WOMEN), the only extra is the original trailer, which is presented anamorphic and looks to have been cleaned up as well. The trailer (with voiceover by Pataki himself) also emphasizes the GARDEN OF THE DEAD double bill, with scenes from the film towards the end. (George R. Reis)
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