Back to the ’70s and back to vampires we go; an upgrade was in order as everyone agreed (even Hammer) that bloodsuckers needed to be modernized, rejuvenized (?), and Martinized (blood stains are a bitch) for more discerning audiences post-Night of the Living Dead (1968). The cobwebbed décor and heaving bodices were old hat; it was time for sleek condos and full-on nudity. Progress! While Hammer and AIP were dropping their updated takes, an independent company called Entertainment Pyramid released Grave of the Vampire (1972), a fun, low-budget curiosity with a pretty high pedigree.
Released in October on a reported budget of $50,000, Grave played the drive-in circuit forever; bloodsuckers are always good for parting teens from their dough. As for that pedigree: any film that features Michael Pataki, William Smith, and has a script by future The Sopranos creator David Chase has my full attention. And for the most part, it earns it.
Things start fast as a young college couple in 1940 head to the graveyard for a make out session, when they’re interrupted by Caleb Croft (Pataki – Graduation Day), a murdering rapist—sorry; I meant to say an undead murdering rapist who rises from the grave just as our kids start steaming up the windows. Croft kills the letterman before absconding into an unmarked grave with the girl for unspeakable activities. He then heads into town, kills one more unsuspecting woman, and flees. Meanwhile, poor Leslie (or as she’s listed in the credits, “The Unwilling Mother”) discovers she’s pregnant with… something, but refuses to abort. When she has her son, she accidentally finds out that he much prefers blood, as some drips on his face. Shocking? Sure, if you can ignore the five o’clock shadow.
Flash forward 30 years or so, and that baby has grown into James Eastman (Smith – Invasion of the Bee Girls, the burliest ex-biker around, and if anyone could have stubble as an infant, it would be him), who has spent these many years tracking his dad, all the while suffering as a half-vampire himself with a predilection for raw steak. When Croft shows up at a local college to teach a night class in the occult, Eastman sees the chance to eradicate Dad from the face of the earth. The only problem is they’re both vying for the same gal, Anne (Lyn Peters – Get Smart), who happens to be the spitting image of Sarah, Croft’s dead wife. Will humanity win out, or will Croft reclaim his bride? Have you seen any ’70s horror?
Okay, it doesn’t turn out exactly as you think, because Grave of the Vampire sidesteps a few decrepit tropes and introduces some interesting turns, starting with Eastman himself. First of all, a vampire impregnating a human is news to me; a vampire’s lust had always been exhibited through the rather romantic notion of bloodletting through the neck—sensual and dangerous. Rape is of course the antithesis of this, and the film immediately attains a gritty power because of it. Eastman, too, is cursed: born of motherly love, yet damned to a lust almost beyond his control; and to stop the evil, he could hasten his own demise as well. What’s a poor half-vamp to do?
It’s nice to see Chase give some agency to the women; they’re all independent and either teachers or young women of strength and influence, even if most of them will fall and collapse at the first hint of provocation. (I guess there were still some tropes not quite ready for conversion.) But what he does best—as he would prove later on while writing for the Kolchak TV series in ’74 and with The Sopranos—are interesting scenarios and dialogue.
There’s a classroom scene between Eastman and Croft about the nature of identity and hiding from the truth that is smarter than it has to be—frankly, most of the dialogue is, within the boundaries of the piece, of course; it’s hard to convey gravitas in a cop scene when two officers argue about whether a killer is a vampire or not. But within the context, the lines fall a little less flat.
Not that director John Hayes (he also made the same year’s Garden of the Dead, which double billed with Grave) doesn’t try his best to derail the dialogue scenes; anything not horror-related is shot a tad lifeless. However, he gives the death set pieces a nice vein squeeze and shoots for gothic atmosphere, which he achieves. The graveyard scenes are suitably spooky and anytime Pataki attacks (say that five times fast) there’s a visceral energy that pops off the screen. At least Chase’s words are interesting enough to carry the viewer from set piece to set piece.
Michael Pataki is a bizarre choice for a vampire; balding, with a curly tuft and lumpy face, he doesn’t really scream “aristocratic.” However, what he lacks in physical presence, he makes up through anger and indignation. Croft is a ruthless killer, plain and simple—son be damned. William Smith is the opposite of Pataki; he’s almost completely physical, and his Eastman is shy and sullen until the final brawl against Pops, where he bellows “I’M YOUR SON!” I don’t think he submitted the clip to the Academy that year, but at least he’s trying.
Grave of the Vampire is a film that changed things up a little and injected a bit of fresh plasma into a sub-genre desperate for a transfusion. It’s not every day you come across a half-vampire baby in need of a shave, is it?
Grave of the Vampire will be available April 16th on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: FORBIDDEN WORLD (1982)