Friday, May 1, 2015

Monster Serial: GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE


By WALLACE McBRIDE

In 2007, David Chase decided to end THE SOPRANOS on a note of ambiguity. It created such uproar that people who never watched the series even felt compelled to develop an opinion about it.

Here’s a rough version of how THE SOPRANOS ended: A stranger approaches a restaurant table where mobster Tony Soprano is sitting with his family. Until this moment, the scene has been composed to create a feeling of vague menace. We never find out who the stranger is, though, because the scene cuts to a black screen before the credits roll, denying us a firm resolution to the episode, the season and the entire series.

Except, it really didn't. We know how Tony Soprano’s story ends. He might not have met his fate at the end of that particular episode, but it’s only a matter of time before his number comes up. People who wanted a more concrete ending probably had no real appreciation for the show beyond its pageantry of violence.

But I’m not here to talk about THE SOPRANOS. Instead, let’s consider the ending of 1972’s GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE, a horror film that also doubled as Chase’s first credited screenwriting gig. Where THE SOPRANOS ended on a note of subtlety, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE has the kind of ending so corny it would make even R.L. Stine groan. As the final scene fades to black, the following words hover into view in a bold sans serif font: “THE END OR IS IT?”

Subtlety, thy name is GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE.
You could make a compelling argument that Chase ripped off his ending for THE SOPRANOS from GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE. It’s more likely, though, that Chase just doesn’t believe conflicts have the kind of decisive conclusions usually seen in entertainment. The difference between the storytelling on display in THE SOPRANOS and GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE is a measure of eloquence.

Well, it’s not the only difference. GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE is a vile piece of shit, falling somewhere on the spectrum between Bosnian pornography and a snuff film. It’s a movie that manages to wring terrible performances from otherwise decent actors, bringing the median cast performance level down to that of a high school play stocked entirely with understudies. GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE is mean, gross, and offensively stupid, and is better suited for the trenchcoat-and-sunglasses crowd found sitting in the back rows of a stroke house.

It was also the first movie shot in Rape-O-Vision.
And it’s also kind of fascinating, in its own way. There’s something to be said for the audaciousness of amateur filmmaking and you can’t fault GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE for being timid. The film opens with a couple conveniently making out in a car parked near a cemetery. For reasons that are never explained, vampire Caleb Croft (played by Michael Pataki) busts from his tomb and violently interrupts them. He beats the man to death with a hammer before dragging the woman into an open grave to rape her.

The survivor later gives birth to Croft’s child, who turns his nose up at breast milk and formula, preferring to drink his mother’s blood. Despite the nutritional deficiency that surely accompanied such a diet, the baby grows up to become burly B-movie icon William Smith.

The '70s just happened.
Smith enrolls at a local community college, where Croft is now teaching a course on the occult under the name of “Lockwood.” Smith wants vengeance on his father; Croft believes he can welcome his son into the undead fold. Meanwhile, we’re treated to some of the worst dialogue (and line delivery) you’ll find outside of an Ed Wood film. Here’s a sample of actual dialogue from GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE:
“Can I make you some spaghetti?”
“No thanks.”
“Some Chianti, then?”
“O.K.”
“Do you have a corkscrew?”
“Yes.”
These lines are traded as the actors face each other, standing as woodenly as is they were worried about setting off a motion detector. I’d love to have heard what the cast had to say about the script on the set. Did they know how terrible it was? Was this delivery some kind of revenge against the director? Was someone standing off-camera, forcing them to make this movie at gunpoint?

“Cake is so delicious, I can’t believe dead people haven’t found a way to eat it.” An actor actually had to say that.

Food before one is just for fun.
As I said before, though, there’s a gross charm to GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE that comes from a filmmaker having no idea what they’re doing. As a fan of DARK SHADOWS, I’ve seen more than my fair share of séances. GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE holds a special distinction by being the first movie to end a séance scene by pushing one of the participants into a lit fireplace.

This column is among those featured in
 BRIDE OF MONSTER SERIAL, a collection of 
horror essays written by contributors to 
THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY. 
Buy it today on Amazon!
By this point in the film, it’s pretty much an open secret that Lockwood is Croft, and that Croft is a vampire. You’d probably be forgiven for not having figured that out for yourself, though, had the film’s title not had the word “vampire” in it. GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE furiously veers away from established Hollywood mythology. Croft has more in common with Ted Bundy than Dracula, and kills his victims with whatever is at hand. We learn that Croft was executed years earlier, and the condition of his corpse at the start of the film (which is littered with spiders and lizards for some reason) suggests he’s been visiting slumberland for quite a while. Still, the first thing he does when rising from the grave is rape a woman.

It’s worth mentioning that his victims don’t become vampires, as is the traditional method of undead reproduction since Bram Stoker’s novel was published. There’s nothing in the film that suggests there’s any other way to make a vampire than traditional pregnancy. Perhaps Croft is just cautious. Until the film’s final scene, where Smith sprouts some surprisingly silly dental work, Croft is the only vampire we meet in the film.

Which, given film’s utter lack of charm, is probably for the best.

(Wallace McBride is the editor of THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY.)

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