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….