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Plot: newly-weds fall under the spell of vampires in remote castle.

The Kiss of the Vampire is not one of Hammer’s more famous vampire films. The original Dracula (1958) was followed with the fantastic The Brides Of Dracula (1960) and Hammer Studios was eager to capitalize on its success producing eight Dracula sequels between 1960 and 1974. The Kiss of the Vampire was originally intended as the third installment of the franchise but ended up being reworked to such a degree that it became a stand-alone feature. What it does carry over from The Brides Of Dracula (1960) is the vampirism as a social disease afflicting the bourgeoisie and upper class motif. It features none of the company’s big names and much like the later The Plague of the Zombies (1966) it is a highly atmospheric and thoroughly enjoyable second-tier title. Thankfully Hammer Studios always poured their everything into the productions, even the smaller ones. There’s a lot to like about The Kiss of the Vampire and in Hammer tradition there’s no shortage of absolutely beautiful comely British belles.

Where The Kiss of the Vampire shares the strongest affinities with is Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) from which it pilfers the basic premise. The vampirism as a social disease afflicting the decadent bourgeoisie motif is something straight out of Hammer’s own The Brides Of Dracula (1960) and to a lesser degree the Graziella Granata feature The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962). The Kiss of the Vampire was Tasmanian director Don Sharp’s first feature for the house of Hammer. He would helm the Harry Alan Towers written and produced The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) and its sequel The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), the second (and last) of the The Fly (1958) sequels with Curse of the Fly (1965). His last notable directorial feature was the subterranean horror production What Waits Below (1984). Sharp lenses his Hammer debut with finesse, intelligence and flair. Perhaps The Kiss of the Vampire isn’t one of Hammer’s grandiloquent vampire features but is wonderful all the same.

In an unspecified remote Southern European country honeymooning American couple Gerald (Edward de Souza) and Marianne Harcourt (Jennifer Daniel) are stranded on their way to Bavaria when their 1903 De Dion Bouton Type Q automobile runs out of petrol. Gerald orders Marianne to stay put as he searches the surroundings for people that might be able to help them find fuel. The two take up lodging in the distant and desolate inn of Bruno (Peter Madden) and Anna (Vera Cook). As the young couple are settling into their new surroundings Carl (Barry Warren) and Sabena (Jacquie Wallis) come to invite them to a masquerade ball they will be hosting at their palatial abode where they live with their father Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman). The couple end up confused as Carl and Sabena make haste to depart in their horse and carriage as soon as they’re told that the sun is breaking through the overcast skies. While trying to procure much-needed petrol to continue their journey the couple make their acquaintance with Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) who spouts ominous cryptic warnings about the Ravna clan and their true intentions. Gerald is, understandably, puzzled by the doctor, half-mad with terror, and his nigh on incoherent ramblings.

On their first night they are invited to spent the evening at Castle Ravna. Marianne is given immediately smitten by Ravna’s hunk of a son Carl, who insists on playing a piano piece especially for the occassion. Gerald is fortunate to find himself in company of the patrician Sabena. The couple are taken by the clan’s kindness in their time of need. When they run into Zimmer again they notice that for some hitherto unknown reason has a bone to pick with the noble Ravna family, but he shrugs it off as provincial narrowmindedness. It’s not until the Harcourts are invited to a prestigious masquerade ball on the Ravna estate that Zimmer’s warnings suddenly become crystal clear. Before Gerald very well realizes it Marianne has fallen for the considerable charms of Dr. Ravna and his brood are insistent that he doesn’t leave the premises. To that end they have the local law enforcement on the payroll with the town constable (John Harvey).

As it turns out not only is Dr. Ravna a well-respected man of science, but also the head of a blood cult with which he intends to usurp the world of the living. Thanks to a bit of quick thinking and a bout of cloak and dagger Gerald is able to escape the masquerade without attracting any attention. By this point Zimmer confided in him that he lost his nubile daughter to the Ravna. When Gerald runs into the Ravna once the ball has ended and he inquires after Marianne’s whereabouts, the doctor and his spawn deny that she ever existed and that he must be imagining things. Driven to increasingly desperate measures Gerald sees no other way than to break Marianne free from bondage in her golden cage. As he sneaks into the Ravna’s palatial sarcophagal abode he is cornered by Dr. Ravna and his brood and the comely Tania (Isobel Black), who had been pretty much a wallflower by this point and Zimmer’s long-lost daughter, tries to vampirize Gerald into subservience. Having spent the last days frantically trying to find a solution, any solution, the old professor desperately recants an age-old incantation from an arcane tome that unleashes a swarm of bats that kill the vampires and give Gerald and Father Xavier (Noel Howlett) enough time to rescue Marianne.

The production design and sets are positively lavish for a secondary feature. The ornate Ravna castle interiors are a joy to behold in just how detailed and stuffed to the gills every location is. This being a non-tentpole feature The Kiss Of the Vampire features none of Hammer’s more marketable names. It was very much like The Plague Of the Zombies (1966) that way a few years later. This was the Hammer of a different age when patrician babes like Veronica Carlson, Stephanie Beacham, Kate O’Mara, and Marie Devereux were ubiquitous and omnipresent but none of them feature here. The recurring pastel color palette in the dresses and drinks probably formed the basis for the bright and colorful production design on the Hammer horror send-up The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) with Vincent Price. Jacquie Wallis’ Sabena is a noble looking redhead that would be played by Luciana Paluzzi, Rosalba Neri or Rosanna Yanni had this been a Mediterranean feature. The only real blemish here are the very obviously rubber and fake bats on a string that attack the vampire clan during the epic finale. This was a scene originally envisioned for The Brides Of Dracula (1960) but was never filmed. Nevertheless special effects men Les Bowie, Kit West, and Ray Caple all amassed highly impressive resumées with some of the biggest Hollywood productions of the day.

The Kiss Of the Vampire was sexier and bloodier than any of the old Universal Monster horrors. In its heyday Hammer pushed the envelope as far as they could. It’s easy to see how something would like this would inform the work of somebody like Jean Rollin. It’s a small jump from this to something as The Rape Of the Vampire (1968). Likewise, it’s more than a little ironic that the Mediterranean European and Latin American gothic horror that Hammer came to inspire would push the ailing company towards their legendary glamour lesbian vampire flicks in the the early-to-mid seventies when the company was in its twilight and Hammer Horror was on its last legs. The Victorian epics from the house of Hammer updated and often improved upon the creaky Universal horror icons of the thirties – and were considered pretty risqué at the time. Even before the glamour years Hammer filled its features with all the blood and bountiful bosomed babes (never lacking in cleavage but rarely showing anything more). Hopelessly antiquated by today’s standards (and incredibly charming for exactly the same reason) The Kiss Of the Vampire is a relic from a bygone age. That Hammer itself would soon face imminent redundancy and obsolescence is a story for another day….

Plot: one woman dares stand up against an evil industrialist empire.

The second Babes with Blades feature came three years after the entertaining but ultimately misguided Warrioress (2015). The Flower Of Sarnia was conceived and conceptualized during post-production on Warrioress (2015), and it was to be even more ambitious than the first. Once again everybody from the Babes with Blades stunt team was involved but this time Cecily Fay would not only write, produce, direct, edit, act, and score – she would also double as costume designer and action choreographer. Seeing it as an opportunity to showcase her team it’s a vehicle by, with, and for stunt people. A labor of love for everyone involved. The Flower Of Sarnia became Babes with Blades: The Flower Of Sarnia before being rebranded to just Babes with Blades. And that’s what it ultimately is all about. Call it truth in advertising. Babes With Blades delivers exactly what it promises. It’s about babes… with blades.

Whoever thought that Cecily Fay would give up after the protracted release of Warrioress (2015) might as well looks elsewhere because Cecily isn’t going anywhere. No, it seems all the troubles she was beset with during production of her debut feature only added more to her resolve to get a second out. And that perseverance and determination is at least to be admired, even in light of how Babes with Blades presents no real progress (from a technical – or writing standpoint) from Warrioress (2015). We’d love nothing more for Cecily than that she’s able to produce that one feature that would finally break her through to an audience beyond martial arts enthusiasts. To its credit Babes with Blades is in every way to superior to things like Geisha Assassin (2008), a glorified martial arts demo reel that didn’t so much pretend as to have a story. No. Babes with Blades suffers from exactly the opposite, the action scenes sometimes get in the way of the story. Where character scenes would’ve sufficed there are seemingly never-ending action scenes. Sometimes it just is better to have a character forward the story arch with words instead of punches, kicks, and blades.

The galaxy trembles under the tyrannical rule of the Visray empire. The planet Sarnia is “under seige” (no, really). Azura (Trudie Tume) is taken captive by the invading forces. Twelve years pass, and Azura (Cecily Fay) has escaped the clutches of her captors and now hides on the mining planet of Draiga 5. There she survives by staying out of sight. One day Azura is discovered and imprisoned by Visray patrols. She’s sold to slavetrader Sef (John Robb, as Jon Robb) and is forced into gladiatorial combat for the amusement of Section Commander Sorrentine (Joelle Simpson). Sorrentine is grooming her son Peltarion (Daniel Everitt-Lock) as a successor. The catacombs are overflowing with rebellion and the headforce – the brave Viridian (Cheryl Burniston), the feisty Amber (Yennis Cheung), and pricefighter Dahlia (Lauren Okadigbo) – have managed to plant a deep undercover operative in the court with Kewan (Michael Collin). Before long Azura is deemed recuperated enough for gladiatorial combat. It’s at this juncture that Kewan hands her an arcane tome from which she learns ancient martial arts.

Empowered by the knowledge from the tome Azura comes face to face with the fearsome and feared Andromeda (Jo Marriott) and later Freya (Heather McLean). Much to the chagrin of both Sef and Section Commander Sorrentine both end up defeated in the arena, and Azura soon becomes the people’s favorite combatant. With Azura’s popularity ever increasing the freedom fighters realize that the hour draws near. In Azura they not only have a formidable champion, but also their new messiah, linchpin, and figurehead for their plebeian revolution, an insurgence strong enough that it may topple the cruel Visray regime that has long oppressed them. When it’s time for Dahlia to combat Azura in the ring the various rebel factions must come together. Azura’s motives are of a more personal nature. Exacting revenge for the slaying of her people, and Section Commander Sorrentine is the most directly responsible. The only question is: can Azura put her vendetta aside and rise to lead the revolution?

While by no means original Babes with Blades manages to pack just about everything in what is not really a whole lot of story to begin with. The general template is that of Bloodsport (1988) with a central character archetype straight out of Spartacus (1960) and a non-ambiguous good-evil out of Star Wars (1977). All of that is overlain with a negligible dystopian science-fiction component and steampunk cosplay aesthetic. Sadly, it takes the route of Lithuanian shlockfest Amazons and Gladiators (2001) rather than that of Mortal Kombat (1995) (a masterclass in storytelling/worldbuilding through economic exposition and succint character introductions) or Gladiator (2000). At one point Azura is even put in a weaponized necklace, sort of like the kids in Battle Royale (2000). When Azura comes to face to face with Andromeda and Freya both get an introductory line in their respective fight, but the screenplay never introduces them properly, nor what milestone they represent in Azura’s ascent to legendary hero. Pacing is problematic at best and once past the 55 minute mark (when Azura’s gladiatorial combat wraps up) Babes with Blades sort of collapses in on itself.

All of this could have been easily resolved had each contestant represented an actual obstacle and a milestone in Azura’s growth as a character. This would have made her eventual duel with Dahlia that much more powerful, especially if we weren’t privy to the fact that Dahlia was actually a rebel – and even moreso if the reveal of Dahlia’s true loyalties coincided with the coup d'état staged by the uprising rebellion (that now anticlimactically transpires post the arena fights) crushing the Visray empire in one swift blow, simultaneously putting Azura in gladiatorial combat with her arch nemesis. Andromeda and Freya now appear as regular contestants and not imposing figures they were probably were meant as. Script problems aren’t the only thing that grind Babes with Blades down. There’s the expected shaky camerawork that either is hyper-active or positioned in such a way that the action is occasionally hard to follow, or that completely irrelevant things clog up the frame. The lighting in the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, South Yorkshire is mostly put to good use. Some of the more vibrant hues give it that artsy Mario Bava feel. The exteriors of the Crossness Pumping Station in London are good for what they are, but that’s about it. Given that this is the work of one woman makes it impressive in a technical sense. At least Cecily Fay is not Neil Breen. No, Fay’s modest catalogue is perhaps closest to pre-2013 Rene Perez.

And it’s not as if Cecily Fay, Lauren Okadigbo, and Yennis Cheung are novices either. No, that’s about as the furthest from the truth as you could get. Cecily Fay was a stunt performer in Prometheus (2012), and Skyfall (2012). Lauren Okadigbo was a stunt performer in Wonder Woman (2017), Justice League (2017), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and most recently doubled for Zendaya in Dune (2021) and Nathalie Emmanuel in F9 (2021). Yennis Cheung was in a handful of Hong Kong and South Korean martial arts movies in late 90s before relocating to the UK. That about makes Lauren Okadigbo the Helen Steinway Bailey of the piece. Music commentator and punk rock monument John Robb (of The Membranes and Goldblade, as well as editor-in-chief of Louder Than War magazine) is surprisingly solid as a poor man’s Vinnie Jones or Jason Statham. The focal point, of course, is Cecily herself. Don’t be fooled by her diminutive stature and petite frame, Fay is Britain’s own Angela Mao Ying, JeeJa Yanin, or Veronica Ngo and it’s nigh on unbelievable that this woman is practically unknown.

To its credit Babes with Blades offers a veritable avalanche of high-octane Hong Kong-inspired action routines but is marred by non-existent cinematography, choppy editing, a hokey score, and amateur actors with more enthusiasm than talent. The near-constant barrage of death-defying action sequences, both with weaponry and without, work exactly the way you want them to; but it are the character – and exposition scenes where Babes with Blades fails most glaringly. As Warrioress (2015) before it Babes with Blades has the thinnest veneer of story as a preamble to have as many action sequences as humanly possible and like that one this too often looks like a Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, or Frank Frazetta canvas brought to life. In other words, Babes with Blades is full of, well, babes in skimpy constumes and/or impractical armor. Fay’s Lollipop Chainsaw cheerleader costume pretty much is a futuristic make-over of the little number she wore in Warrioress (2015). Babes with Blades probably would do good in hiring Ukrainian bellydancer Diana Bastet as their resident costume designer. Whether Babes with Blades is actually an improvement over Warrioress (2015) depends entirely on your preference for no-budget, shot-on-video action demo reels with an absolute dearth of story. Since this one comes bearing The Flower Of Sarnia as chapter title that reasonably suggests there’s going to be sequels at some point. When, and if, it does hopefully it comes bearing Ken Kelly or Lorenzo Sperlonga poster art.