The Kiss of The Vampire 1963 ***

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Don Sharp’ 1963 vampire movie for Hammer was one of the first horror films this critic saw, and probably gave an unrepresentative sample for what was to come next. While most horror films go for the jugular, Sharp wasn’t a genre fan, and he constructs his film very differently from the Hammer norm. The story is fairly familiar; a young couple Gerald and Marienne (Edward De Souza and Jennifer Daniel) find their car has broken down in turn of the century Bavaria, and happen on a vampire cult led by the sinister Dr Ravna (Noel Willman). Van Helsing-lite Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) is on the case, staking out a coffin-bound vampire in the bloody opening sequence, and not afraid to use black magic against the vampire hoards in a dramatic finale. Between these two set pieces, there’s a very slow burn as letters are delivered by carriage, cars take weeks to repair, and proceedings generally unfold at the speed of a rain-interrupted test match. The Kiss of the Vampire is in colour, which is notable in that it looks fantastic with all manners of greens and golds, and the genteel pace gives it a unique flavour; it’s rare to praise a horror for earnestness and conviction, but that’s what Sharp’s film has. An ideal ‘first horror movie’ for curious children, The Kiss of the Vampire may be tame by today’s standards, but it’s also a fun example of a template that got bogged down in sex, violence and derivative ideas. It’s also clearly the template for Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers; the richly-textured  masked ball scene in particular.

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Lust for a Vampire 1971 ****

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They didn’t have Comic-Con in 1970, but if they did, they might have been speculating on the franchises and multiverses of the day; would George Lazenby top Sean Connery’s five James Bond films? Would Alan Arkin’s Inspector Clouseau eclipse Peter Sellers? And would Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy launch a horror franchise to dwarf their popular Dracula and Frankenstein revivals? (Bringing back Terrence Fisher and Peter Cushing, plus red hot vampire lesbianism would surely be a draw). The answers to each of these propositions were no, no and no, and miscalculation of audience demands were the cause in each case, but Hammer’s Karnstein films are well overdue a reassessment. Ireland’s J Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla was the jumping off point for 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, but with Fisher and Cushing dropping out for this loose sequel, Jimmy Sangster crafted an unusually restrained treatment of vampire lore. Large dumps of exposition establish that Styria, Austria is a supernatural place where the locals grumble about the influence of the vampire family Karnstein. Writer Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnston) is warned off visiting, but stumbles across a luxurious girls school where the ‘girls’ all appear to be models of about 25 and all wear the kind of diaphanous nighties that suggest auditions for The New Seekers are in progress. The girls are prone to going missing, but owner Miss Simpson (Helen Christie) manages to cover things up by mailing their families death certificates provided by a tame doctor (Radio 1 DJ Mike Raven, voiced by Valentine Dyall). Miss Simpson turns out to be in thrall to vampire Countess Heritzen (Barbara Jefford), but star pupil Mircalla aka Carmilla Karnstein (Yutte Stensgard) seems to be falling for LeStrange via dream sequnces and strange anachronistic bursts of pop-music…Co-star Ralph Bates, who hams it up in the school-teacher role intended for Cushing, reckons Lust for a Vampire was one of the worst films ever made, but in comparison with his 1974 horror stinker Persecution, it’s a masterpiece. The script is literate; as the scrupulous DVD extras carefully point out, if a few scenes from Tudor Gates’s script could be re-instated, would offer an original story in a clever, meta way. Perhaps there’s one crash-zoom into neck-bites too many; there’s an exploitative sequence with the camera cycling through three separate female disrobings that may have quickened pulses at the time but might potentially tax the modern viewer’s patience. Sangster’s energetic direction, however, plus the unfamiliar cast and premise, make Lust for a Vampire a prospect to make the blood rush to the extremities of even the most jaded horror connoisseurs.

On DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK from Aug 12th 2019

The Mummy 1959 ****

Terence Fisher’s sense of style often seemed to be at odds with the cheeky cheap and cheerful production values of Hammer films; this retelling of the classic Mummy story has a garish colour scheme with dynamic greens and reds splashed across the screen. Peter Cushing is amongst the party of foolhardy Brits who happen across an Egyptian tomb; murdered one by one by a mysterious assailant, it’s clear that something evil has been awakened, and that something is a mummy played by Christopher Lee. The Mummy’s narrative is straightforward enough, but there’s a lengthy and substantial flashback that details the history of Kharis (Lee) giving the star a chance to do something more than swan around in bandages and moaning in a threatening way. There’s a sense of colonial guilt at work here; although John Banning (Cushing) describes the forces disturbed as ‘evil’, it’s clear that the wrong being committed here is the desecration of the temple, and a reincarnation sub-plot involving Banning’s daughter manages to create some genuine sympathy for the monster. Jimmy Sangster’s script may feed on fear of a foreign unknown, but doesn’t shy away from identifying a genuine grievance in terms of how the Egyptians might view entitled Brits.

Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires 1974 ***

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Something of a shambles, but enjoyable enough, this hybrid from the Hammer and Shaw Brothers studios mixes vampire horror and kung-fu action; it’s hard to imagine what Peter Cushing made of it all. As Van Helsing, he’s back on the trail of Count Dracula (John Forbes Robertson) in rural China; Roy Ward Baker is a reliable director for hammer films, but the odd-make-up and lengthy fight-scenes seem to have pushed him well outside his comfort zone. Something of a novelty item for genre fans, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is a charmingly odd late-cycle offering.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell 1973 ***

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The last of the Hammer Frankenstein films is an untypically gory affair from director Terence Fisher. Peter Cushing returns as a haggard Baron, now ruling the roost over a lunatic asylum where he has unlimited body parts for his creations. He befriends a young doctor (Shane Briant) who has recently been incarcerated for grave-robbing, and soon they’re building an imperfect beast, with Dave Prowse in a rather unconvincingly bulky suit. Eyeballs are dropped from jars, brains fall on the floor and a lengthy brain-transplant sequence all turn the stomach, but Cushing’s presence, alongside Bernard Lee and Madeleine Smith, make this a worthwhile swan-song for the series.

Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter 1974 ***

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Long before it even crossed Abraham Lincoln’s mind, Captain Kronos was the go-to guy for Vampire Hunting. In 1974, Hammer was seeking to reinvigorate its flagging box-office, so Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee took a back seat and writer/director Brian Clements (The Avengers) was given the chance to create a fresh new franchise. It didn’t pan out, but there’s enough flash and fun is this rather jolly horror film to make that regrettable. The monogramed K on his clothes ‘stands for Kronos, Captain Kronos, vampire Hunter’ on of the characters explains; played by blonde-haired Horst Janson, he’s a swashbuckling type, riding a black horse with flesh coloured-trousers on, powering his way across the countryside followed by hunchbacked assistant Professor Grost (John Cater) and his carriage, drawn by two white horses. Add Caroline Munro as a woman rescued from the stocks by Kronos, angered by her punishment for ‘dancing on Sunday’ and  Clements has quite a team to play with. The vampires are also originally rendered; they drain the youth rather than the blood from their victims. There’s great remake potential here, but for now, Captain Kronos is well worth hunting out.

The Witches 1966 ***

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Joan Fontaine made an illustrious lead as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and seems on odd choice for the lead in Hammer Films’ The Witches, a slow and moody horror film in a minor key. Nurse Gwen (Fontaine) returns from something nasty happening to her in Africa to a sleepy British town, but taking up a post as an English teacher leads her to suspect a coven of witches are at work. Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale adapts a novel by Norah Lofts, setting up a slow-burning mystery that’s all the more quaint for the Ladybird-book simplicity of 1966 Britain, shot in an early version of Hammer’s Kensington Gore style.  Support from Alec McCowen and Leonard Rossiter keeps the interest going, and there’s a sense in which the measured, restrained tone matches up nicely with the polite exterior of the sleepy community the drama is set inside.