Horror in the ‘50s tended to lean towards the sci-fi end of the spectrum. And why wouldn’t it? This was the atomic age, and hiding under your school desk during a bomb drill (the safest place to be!) was scarier than any monster Hollywood could muster. So as a form of social moralizing (or an excuse to display giant, mutated lizards on screen), filmmakers merged the fear of nuclear annihilation with the need for entertainment. Most filmmakers, that is. Paul Landres’ The Vampire (1957) is a deliberate ride through the (mostly) human condition, small in scope but surprisingly big on emotion. Just don’t expect any vampires, radioactive, sparkly, or otherwise.

What you do get is a story much closer to Stevenson than Stoker, a simple riff on Jekyll and Hyde shot through a cautionary tale about America’s then growing concern with pill poppin’. The Vampire is more concerned with the nuclear family than nuclear destruction.

Released in June by United Artists, The Vampire’s $115,000 budget all but guaranteed an emphasis on low key thrills; to whit this was filmed on one street in Culver City. Of course, this works to the film’s advantage by highlighting the intimacy of the film’s mature themes.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Some story, yes? We start in Smalltown, USA, and Dr. Paul Beecher (John Beal – Amityville 3-D) is making his rounds. Dr. Beecher is the type to defer payments by those who can’t afford; a real stand up guy and all around swell fella. He receives a call to check on a very ill local scientist, who is doing experiments on himself with vampire bats’ blood, in order for man to revert back to his primal urges. (I think. Exposition, and/or wonky scientific reasoning are not my strong suit.) Too late to save him, Beecher confiscates the scientist’s pills for research, only to be given one mistakenly by his daughter Betsy (Lydia Reed – High Society), in place of his normal migraine medicine. Before long, Beecher sleeps through the night (or so he believes) while bodies start piling up with puncture wounds in their necks.

Meanwhile, Dr. Will (Dabbs Greer – Little House on the Prairie) arrives on the scene to take over research from his colleague, the formerly warmer scientist who set our story in motion. As Beecher has no idea at first that he is responsible for the grisly murders, he works in conjunction with Dr. Will and Sheriff Buck (Kenneth Tobey – The Howling) to solve the mysterious deaths. But as Beecher soon discovers, the truth always hits hardest at home…

The Vampire runs on an efficiency that is hard to resist. Clocking in at a lean 75 minutes, it doesn’t waste any time in setting up and following through with its tale. As with most B-movie attempts at relevance, the prescription drug angle is handled with a subtlety on par with Reefer Madness; it’s made very clear that the pills are addictive, and well, as we see through charming transformations achieved in a similar style to 1941’s The Wolf Man, the side effects are plentiful. However, at the time I’m sure it seemed an apt metaphor for the burgeoning pharmaceutical problem.

But The Vampire doesn’t dwell or focus too intently on the issue; remembering that the blossoming teenager in the back of the car (or the back row of a darkened theater) is their target audience, they try to accommodate with a few expertly staged scenes of suspense. Of special note is a scene where Beecher, transformed, chases his office nurse and potential paramour Carol (Coleen Gray – The Leech Woman) along a shadowy street – timed beautifully, and shot with a fear for the unseen, it plays as well as any moment in a Carpenter or Hitchcock. And the film comes to a thrilling head in a final chase involving Carol, Beecher and the Sheriff that is, again, paced perfectly for maximum suspense.

In between, we’re treated to great character moments between Beecher, Will, and Will’s assistant Henry (James Griffith), a beatnik who never takes off his sunglasses. There’s an ease and quirkiness to these scenes that is removed from the normal starchy exchanges found in monster movies of the era. As well, we have a genuinely touching relationship between widower Beecher and Betsy, a refreshing sincerity that again, seems incongruous with the usual material at hand.

Credit for these interesting touches should go to screenwriter Pat Fielder, who imbues Betsy with motherly instincts towards her father, and shows the compassion inherent in Beecher even when he discovers what he’s become. She would team up again with Landres the following year for The Return of Dracula (’58), and her strengths as a writer are apparent in these intimate scenes. It’s not always easy to show the man behind the monster.

Landres, Editor John Faure (The Big Country), and Fielder all come from a TV background, which works well with a B film; in addition to an economy that the subject matter gloms to, the characters are given little defining moments that carry them through the film – which of course wouldn’t matter if the cast couldn’t pull it off.

Surprisingly, the performers for the most part underplay nicely, with a special mention to star John Beal. Starting out in pictures in the ‘30s, this was more or less the twilight years for him in theatrical films before settling down into guest appearances on the tube. He exudes a likeability, and evokes sympathy from the viewer not unlike a more world weary Jimmy Stewart, or for a more modern comparison, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (’86).

And while The Vampire can’t compare to Cronenberg’s classic in terms of scope or finesse, it certainly matches it in the most unusual way: heart. And in an era where the grandest monsters are shown the most attention, it’s nice to see a little humanity take a bow from time to time.

The Vampire is available along with The Return of Dracula on DVD as part of MGM’s Midnite Movies Double Feature Collection.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE FURY (1978)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.