The year before they situated Bram Stoker’s legendary bloodsucking Count in modern day California in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, the creative team of writer Pat Fielder and director Paul Landres concocted this horror yarn that, despite its straightforward title, strays from the traditional vampire lore, more so exploring the science fiction concepts that were all the rage during the days of 1950s drive-in cinema. Under license from MGM, Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory arm now unleashes this bygone “fiend from another world” on the Blu-ray format, in all its black and white glory.
In typically peaceful small town, a young boy goes to make a delivery at the home laboratory of researcher Dr. Campbell (Wood Romoff), who is doing experiments on animals. The boy finds Campbell in a bad state, and he asks him to go fetch Dr. John Beecher (John Beal, EDGE OF DARKNESS), the local house call-making physician. When Beecher arrives, Campbell tells him of some big scientific breakthrough he just made, handing him a small vial of experimental pills before he drops dead on his desk. When Beecher arrives home, he complains of a terrible headache, and when he asks his young daughter Betsy (Lydia Reed, THE SEVEN LITTLE FOYS) to grab his migraine aspirins from his jacket, she hands him Campbell’s experimental pills by mistake and he goes ahead and swallows one. Later, he finds himself too ill to treat his patient Marion Wilkins (Ann Staunton, BORN RECKLESS) and asks her if she could come back to his office first thing in the morning, but by then she’s way too sick to leave her house. Beecher visits Marion, discovers two puncture wounds on her neck, and she reacts to the good doctor in fear before dying in her bed.
In the wake of Campbell’s death (which is deduced as a “simple coronary”), an old university chum of Beecher’s, Dr. Will Beaumont (Dabbs Greer, HOUSE OF WAX) comes to follow up on the mysterious research, and brings along odd colleague Henry Winston (James Griffith, THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN) who never takes his sunglasses off (the light bothers his eyes). The next day, Beecher finds all the caged animals in Campbell’s lab dead (except for the bats) and Beaumont reveals that the late doctor had been experimenting with regression, trying to find out if it was possible to chemically revert the animal mind back to a primitive state and then reverse the process (in an effort to advance human intellect). The pills that came into Beecher’s hands are a control serum extracted from the bats—vampire bats—and they are habit-forming, and desiring one each night, he transforms into a horrible creature, biting his victims on the neck, and then back to his normal (well, maybe not so normal) self by the morning. When Beecher realizes what’s happening to him, and the beast he becomes by night, he takes desperate measures to protect his daughter, and he even contemplates suicide, as his victims continue to pile up.
As far as American cinema was concerned, the genre efforts of the 1950s were dominated by atomic-age fears which included mechanical menaces, unfriendly aliens and colossal beasts. But right before England’s Hammer Films revitalized gothic cinema with their Technicolor Dracula and Frankenstein offerings, these shores were still somewhat obsessed with the classic monsters, even if they came in “teenage” form from American International Pictures, or even Columbia’s THE WEREWOLF (1956). THE VAMPIRE aimed to be different than the common Dracula movie, and is original in execution as it concerns a addicted human-turned-monster who extracts small amounts of blood from his victims’ throats, transmitting a viral disease that he himself is immune from. This, and the angle that when in human form (at least at first) he’s unknowingly treating his own victims the next morning, makes it kind of interesting, and it’s actually closer to “Jekyll and Hyde” or a werewolf tale in its execution. In makeup, Beal of course looks nothing like a traditional Hollywood vampire (though the posters showed him with fangs and Spock ears! Not here!), but rather an extremely homely, crusty and wrinkly brute with fat lips (the lower portion sagging) and bushy eyebrows. As simple as the fiend looks here, it’s a definitely an iconic image for monster kids who gazed at stills in cinema books and monster mags, or better yet caught it on TV (and were terrified to see Beal shoving his victims in a lit furnace), so THE VAMPIRE being quintessential to the list of 1950s “creature feature” flicks is self-explanatory. Beal—a reliable TV and film actor—is believable in the lead: a kindly doctor with a perennial headache under extreme dread after popping one pill, and his character is anything but one-dimensional, especially for a B movie of this type. His relationship with his daughter (well played by Reed, who retired from acting after a long-running stint on TV’s “The Real McCoys”) is very touching indeed.
THE VAMPIRE also lives up to its 1950s monster movie history with its supporting cast, which is full of welcomed, familiar faces. As Beecher’s concerned nurse Carol Butler, sexy Colleen Gray will best be remembered by horror/sci-fi buffs for her starring role in Universal International’s THE LEECH WOMAN (1960), as well as the imaginative AIP space saga THE PHANTOM PLANET (1961). And as the plain-clothed sheriff trying to woo her, Kenneth Tobey needs no introduction here, as he is sci-fi royalty appearing in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA. This may not be his most memorable role, but it’s always good to see him as the hero in these things, and naturally he has nice chemistry with all his co-stars. You will also recognize the bulk of the supplementary players, and their faces add to the fun. Herb Vigran (known for numerous appearances on such TV staples as “I Love Lucy” and “The Adventures of Superman”) is a police sergeant, Paul Brinegar (Rivero, assistant to “Pete the Makeup Man” in AIP’s HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER) is suitably cast a coroner, and Louise Lewis also has bit part (she had much more sizable roles in I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF and BLOOD OF DRACULA). THE VAMPIRE is one of four late 1950s science fiction/horror flicks made by Gramercy pictures for United Artists (all have scores by the great Gerald Fried and were produced by Arthur Gardner and Jules V. Levy), the others being THE FLAME BARRIER, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (which was double featured with THE VAMPIRE) and THE RETURN OF DRACULA. It’s also interesting to note that the film was titled MARK OF THE VAMPIRE when it first appeared on television (possibly to avoid confusion with the same-named Mexican-made film from the same year, released straight to TV) but why use the same title as the well-known 1935 Tod Browning film starring Bela Lugosi?
You could put an asterisk next to THE VAMPIRE in its home video history, as it was never officially available on VHS. However, it premiered on laserdisc in the late 1990s and in then in 2007, it appeared on DVD as a double feature with THE RETURN OF DRACULA as part of MGM’s “Midnite Movies” series. More recently, Shout! Factory licensed the film from MGM and released it on DVD through Timeless Media as part of a “Movies 4 You: Horror” budget collection. Thankfully Scream/Shout! has or is releasing all the films on that collection (the others being THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, THE SCREAMING SKULL and THE BAT PEOPLE) on Blu-ray, with the HD transfer of THE VAMPIRE now making that welcomed transition. The film is presented in 1080p in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio (though the back cover states 1.78:1), the black and white source material is largely clean, with clarity and contrast consistent (with the odd shot or two looking a tad on the soft side). The natural grain structure maintains a sharp and pleasing filmic appearance, with the gray scale boasting plenty of detail. Blacks are appropriately deep and whites are also well defined. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono English track offers clean and clear sound and is devoid of any significant imperfections, so the mix is just fine for a low budget film of this vintage. Optional English SDH subtitles are included. The sole extra is the brief but enticing theatrical trailer (1080p, 1:18) which exclaims such ballyhoo as, “Half human, half wild animal, destroying beautiful women, out to satisfy its unholy lust for blood!”(George R. Reis)
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