Boy howdy, people were sure digging vampires by the end of the ‘70s, weren’t they? Back in vogue, 1979 alone brought Frank Langella as a very sensuous Dracula, George Hamilton with a humorous take in Love at First Bite, Werner Herzog’s retelling of Nosferatu, and Tobe Hooper’s bone-chilling Stephen King miniseries adaptation, Salem’s Lot. There was another small screen vamp to appear that year no one talks about however and that’s ABC’s Vampire, a generically branded thriller that works due to some heavy Richard Lynch lifting as the titular doomed creature.
Originally broadcast on October 7th as The ABC Sunday Night Movie, Vampire had to contend with Alice/The Jeffersons and Trapper John, M.D. on CBS, and NBC’s The Big Event, their dumping ground for specials and TV flicks. And while it doesn’t hold a cross to any of the above entries, it does give us prime Lynch, of which we should be eternally grateful.
Pull out your moldy TV GUIDE and let’s see what what’s in store:
VAMPIRE (Sunday, 9pm, ABC)
A vampire is wakened from his slumber when his burial ground is excavated to make way for a church. Richard Lynch, Jason Miller star.
We start in San Francisco and the city is breaking ground on a new church, which already has a large golden cross erected to commemorate the occasion; in attendance are local luminaries, retired policeman Harry Kilcoyne (E.G. Marshall – Creepshow) and architects of the church, John and Leslie Rawlins (Jason Miller and Kathryn Harrold). As the ceremony ends, Harry notices the shadow of the cross has been burned into the ground. Probably nothing to worry about…except as the night falls, a naked figure claws his way from the soil to the surface, screaming to the sky.
Cut to a month later; the Rawlins are hosting a cocktail party, and their friend Nicole (Jessica Walter – Play Misty for Me) introduces them to her new boyfriend (and undead gopher), Prince Anton Voytek (Lynch – Bad Dreams), who requires their help: his relatives have left behind a buried fortune at their ruinous estate, and he wants the Rawlins to excavate it for him. However, all of the baubles, trinkets, and paintings have been reported stolen for decades, they’re confiscated by the police, and Voytek is arrested. Feeling burned by the Rawlins for turning him in, Voytek vows revenge and only Kilcoyne can help…
Vampire was written by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll two years before they created Hill Street Blues, one of the most acclaimed dramas of the ‘80s; and if the film has any problems it has to do with the seriousness of the script. I’m not saying I wanted a comedy, but it’s very dour; there is no light in the film other than that which Voytek avoids. (Even Hill Street has moments of levity.) Having said that, it mostly avoids any hokey pitfalls associated with the sub genre, and especially considering the limited budget of TV, would be hard to pull off effectively anyway. I guess I’m saying if you can’t pull it off, don’t. (It wouldn’t have killed them to at least give Voytek some fangs, though.)
So we’re left with a solemn take on the vampire legend, updated for modern times; the best named director of all time, E.W. Swackhamer, leads with an efficient if flat take on not only the location, but any vampiric mythology. He moves things along though, only being bogged down with a soggy middle that decides to keep Lynch off screen while Kilcoyne and Rawlin do some investigating. Where he really steps up is getting great performances by a stellar cast.
Let’s start with Jason Miller, our long suffering Father Karras from The Exorcist; much like John Cassavetes, he would take acting jobs to fund his true passion, which in his case was playwriting. He even won the Pulitzer for writing That Championship Season; as an actor, he brought that same furrowed intensity that Cassavetes would, and Rawlin is no exception. If you’re looking for anguish in a vampire flick, Miller has you covered. Bringing as much light that’s allowed is Harrold as his partner and wife; this was near the start of her show business journey, and she emits the good cheer and wry intelligence that has seen her through a varied and successful career. What can you say about Marshall? If you need cantankerous, he’s the guy you’d call; a little mellower here perhaps, so as not to step on Miller’s angst.
But the real treat of Vampire is seeing Richard Lynch put through the paces; his scarred visage is covered to give him a more traditionally handsome appearance, yet instead it’s a rather innate charm that can turn in an instant to malevolence that sells Voytek. He is an eternal monster, but much like Langella that same year, he’s smooth and elegant with the ladies to the point you wish he was given more heroic roles to play. Oh well; no one played evil better, and his nuanced take on Voytek buoys the film and carries it through.
At the very least, Vampire provides us with a new master of the night, in a film that treats him very seriously. And with so many incarnations of undead princes, it’s refreshing to discover one so alive.