Friday, April 26, 2013

Grave of the Vampire (1972) review


William Smith (James Eastman), Michael Pataki (Caleb Croft/Professor Adrian Lockwood/Charles Kroydan), Lyn Peters (Anne Arthur), Diane Holden (Anita Jacoby), Lieux Dressler (Olga), Eric Mason (Lt. Panzer), Kitty Vallacher (Leslie/ 'The Unwilling Mother')

Directed by John Hayes

The Short Version: Possibly the first, and only vampire rapist movie to showcase a vampire who creates another via his sperm while the usual neck bite leaves only a corpse. The film has a wide reaching mythology, but much of this expository potential is drained of its life's blood leaving a few questions unanswered. As Drive In/Late Night fare goes, you can't go wrong with a film that features both Michael Pataki and William Smith as co-stars. Both men raise this film above its sleazy potentiality much the way Cushing and Lee did in their lesser pictures together. Fans of COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE and 70s exploitation will want to sink their teeth into this one.

Caleb Croft inexplicably rises from his crypt and attacks a couple in their vehicle. Killing the boyfriend, the vampire then rapes the girl in an open grave. Nine months later, the woman gives birth to a disturbingly pale baby boy. Discovering by accident that the child needs blood to survive, the kid grows up with a hatred for his father. Seeking him out, the now grown James Eastman tracks Croft to a college where the vampire now masquerades as a professor of the occult.

GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE is one of the more bizarre bloodsucker movies you're ever likely to see. This twisted tale of a vampires son tracking down his father to kill him is occasionally sickening, but with very little gore. It's the overall tone of the thing that allows a feeling of uneasiness to linger.

This unsettling cult item from the 1970s often resembles a grim remake of COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970). The YORGA influence is almost immediate, and that films shadow looms over this production on more than one occasion. Both films feature a scene where the vampire watches, and attacks a couple having sex in a car. YORGA opens with a seance, GRAVE closes with one. Both films also feature sequences where the protagonist and antagonist have a duel of words before their actual confrontation. The two pictures also feature very similar endings, although GRAVE is ambiguous as to its final outcome.

With an unusually expansive (and confusing) storyline, the makers possibly had the hugely successful TV series DARK SHADOWS in mind as well. There's also a hint of the short-lived 1974 television horror series KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (an episode of which also had William Smith in a guest starring role). And of course, there's the typical DRACULA tropes on hand, too; ie the woman that reminds the monster of his long dead wife. 

The ambitious script (written by David Chase, the future writer of both KOLCHAK and more famously with THE SOPRANOS) belies the films low budget, but there are lots of little details that are simply glossed over, or not covered at all. Still, these large holes in the plot nonetheless end up enhancing the exploitation appeal this one possesses in spades. Many of the unanswered questions involve the main vampire.

For example, no explanation is given for Caleb's resurrection -- he simply comes back to life at the beginning of the movie. A young couple readying themselves for sex in the graveyard unwittingly allow themselves to be his first victims. It also looks forward to the 'have sex and die' plot device the slasher sub-genre wore with a badge of honor at the dawn of the 1980s.

Generally, when vampires awaken from a slumber, the first thing they do is seek out warm blood. Croft does this, but also something very different. Not only does he put the bite on a young man, but he then turns his libidinous attention to the girl, Leslie. Having been "dead" for 30 years after being electrocuted (as we later learn), Caleb Croft is one horny vampire. 

No explanation is given as to why nobody becomes a vampire after being bitten. While some of his victims are bitten first, others have their necks broken, or savaged by a sharp implement before he drinks from the gaping wound. Yet, as the way the story unfolds, only one other vampire is created, and done so in a noticeably creepy way -- Croft's evil seed is planted via his sperm!

Not everything is plain out weird, or unexplained. A scene in a late-night library makes absolutely no sense. Croft goes there to check out a book that contains a bit about his history after learning of this from Anita. The librarian states she can't allow it to be checked out because its a reference book. Croft persists. The woman then begins to undo her hair and comb it out in front of him. One expects she's looking for some action. Bizarrely, the woman then tells Croft he has to leave. Of course, this pisses off our vampire who proceeds to put the bite on the licentious librarian. 

This whole teasing bit makes absolutely zero sense. Not only that, but Croft apparently has no hypnotizing skills as per traditional bloodsuckers; but then, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE isn't a traditional vampire movie.

The picture is also structured in a sort of chapter format at approximately ten minute intervals. These begin with Croft's rising from the dead, the rape of Leslie, and his murder of a few women to restore his youthful appearance. It's worth noting the rotting, decomposed makeup effects that resemble the dusty, decayed appearance of Alan Ormsby's creature creations.

The film then introduces a police detective who very quickly assumes there's a vampire on the loose, and who is in some way familiar with the late Caleb Croft. 

When this angle is summarily tied up, the film then shifts to the defiled Leslie having her baby. This segment is possibly the most disturbing portion of the film, and the most viscerally interesting. After the grim "breast-feeding" scene, the film sets up an angle with ghoulish potential -- how this vampire child will integrate into society. Instead of exploring this in detail, we get a scene dissolve or two showing the young boy sitting all alone while the other schoolkids play on the playground.

Then, at the 35 minute mark, things shift to the main thrust of the movie. The boy is now all grown up (the film begins in 1940) and in the form of one of the silver screens most imposing figures -- William Smith. We get a voiceover that informs us that James (Smith) has been searching for his father to avenge his mother, and has finally tracked him down to a university where he now makes a living(?) as a college professor; how he managed to obtain such a profession is never revealed.

Michael Pataki devours his role as the nasty vampire Caleb Croft alias Charles Kroydan. He rarely got lead roles like this during his career, and he seems to be enjoying himself in this quirky, vampiric portrayal of Draculean proportions. About five years later, Pataki essayed a similar role (two, actually) in DRACULA'S DOG (1977). In that film, he played both Dracula and his own modern day descendant. In addition to dozens of TV and movie credits, Pataki also directed an obscure, yet very trashy and gruesome version of EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959) entitled MANSION OF THE DOOMED (1976).

William Smith needs no introduction here at CAC. In addition to bearing the label of 'King of the Biker Movies', he's been in innumerable television shows and movies playing virtually every sort of hero and villain. For GRAVE, Smith is the lead hero; something he would also play the following year in the exploitation gem INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS (1973).

Both men do an excellent job elevating the unpleasant proceedings to a level usually pulled off by the participation of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The success of the film rests largely on their shoulders when there's not something bizarre happening onscreen. Both men carry the picture very well, and it's likewise peculiar seeing Smith in such a film considering he was often associated with action oriented fare. Nonetheless, Smith gets to engage in action during the wild, house wrecking final confrontation between father and son when the two vampires go mano a mano.

Unfortunately, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE is one of those movies that has had a sketchy home video history. It's been released on a handful of PD labels with varying quality. A restored cable airing (including broadcasts on MGM HD) showed the film in a polished state, but missing some scant shots of bloody violence that were reportedly trimmed to obtain a PG rating. Some foreign tape sources retain the missing shots (as you can see HERE). More recently, Retromedia has released the film on DVD that, while still not containing the missing shots, has some brief bits alleged to have never been seen in any other version. 

Below you'll find a list of 11 differences -- some minor and some major -- between the cable broadcast from several years ago and the recent Retromedia DVD. It's worth noting that in addition to the alterations listed below, the new DVD suffers from lots of missing frames and comes up around 52 seconds shorter than the GRAVE cable airing. However, the DVD compensates by containing some fleeting moments unavailable anywhere else. 

Retromedia DVD
Showtime cable airing
It also bears mention that the cable airing is cropped, losing picture information on the left and right side of the screen. You can see the cropping compared between the two photos above.

1. The first difference between the two versions occurs right from the start. The cable airing begins with an MGM logo while the Retromedia DVD begins with a warning label that's also a part of the films trailer. It's pictured above.

2. Approximately 9 seconds of dialog are absent on the Retromedia release -- the first significant piece of missing footage via print damage. This bit of dialog is present on the cable airing at 0:18:50. Olga is awakened by Leslie, 'The Unwilling Mother' as she's listed in the credits. Olga consoles her and says, "You just rest..." the Retromedia version picks up with "...everything'll be alright."

3. At 0:22:05 on the cable version, immediately following the hammer murder, there's a line of dialog present that's missing on the Retro DVD. Olga says, "Doctors pretend like they know everything." The Retromedia version is missing that, and picks up with "...pills... needles... talk... and the people wither away."

4. From 0:33:39 to 0:33:52 (on the Retro release) there's footage present on the Retromedia disc that is not accounted for in the cable airing. It's 13 seconds of additional shots of the breast cutting scene as well as a cutaway to the mother's face. The truncated breast cutting picks up at 0:33:57 in the cable airing.

5. Just prior to the hooker murder, there's about 4 additional seconds in the cable version of her walking away from Croft before she turns her head and sees him following her. The additional shots of Croft gulping blood present in some foreign videotape releases is missing from both versions discussed here.

6. From 0:51:31 to 0:51:39 the cable version includes footage not found on the Retromedia disc. These additional seconds include a longer scene of Croft coming into close up till his face is blurred with his fangs prepared to bury themselves into the librarian's neck. The scene then cuts to a party. There's a few seconds of people dancing before the Retro version picks up with Anita (Holden) opening the door to let James (Smith) in.

7. The cable broadcast contains an additional 4 seconds beginning at 0:57:36 of Anita Jacoby standing silently in thought after running off the names she now suspects all belong to her college professor, Adrian Lockwood. These spare seconds add nothing and are just dead air, so their MIA status on the Retro disc is better served for pacing.

8. There's a rather lengthy stretch of additional footage (35 seconds) on the cable broadcast (see pic at right) that begins at 1:07:53. This extended sequence begins right when Croft slashes Anita's throat (this shot cuts away a fraction of a second sooner in the Retro disc). We then see James (Smith) and Anne (Peters) walking downstairs towards the front door of his apartment. As they stand in front of the door, Anne looks up at him and she says this line of dialog: "I don't expect you to act in any particular way... no pressures... no obligations. If we get together again, it's because we both want to." After the throat slashing, the Retro disc cuts to Anne leaving, omitting the dialog above.

9. At 1:16:00, the cable broadcast (pictured above) features a couple of seconds showing Croft and one of the seance participants adjusting themselves as they sit down. The Retro version cuts to a close up of Croft as soon as they all sit. Inconsequential, but noticeable.

10. At 1:24:40 there's a brief second or two extra of Croft being thrown through the glass on the Retromedia DVD. The cable airing has James toss him through and immediately picks up with the Croft landing on his stomach. The Retro version essentially has the shot twice, but from two different angles -- the first is of him being thrown through the glass and the other is an angle on the other side of the glass as Croft comes through it.

11. The last difference are in a closing freeze frame of William Smith's now vampirized visage. The Retromedia release contains a 'The End, Or Is It?' title while the cable airing bears the same words, but in French, and on a black screen. The above left photo was cropped for sizing purposes.

Retromedia DVD running time: 1:29:46 (not including 'feature presentation' or 'warning' cards)
Showtime airing running time: 1:30:40 (not including MGM logo)

While this isn't a perfect presentation of GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE, it's the best one available on the commercial market in North America. The film isn't hindered by the trimmed shots from two of the bloodier attack scenes -- there's enough grimness to go around. The added shots exclusive to this release will be reason enough to pick up this disc and it looks good with vibrant colors and sound. The minimal extras are nice and help make this an essential DVD purchase for 70s exploitation movie fans.

This review is representative of the Retromedia DVD.

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