Cinemagraphe

Review

The Trouble with Cults: Kiss of the Vampire and The Black Cat

A travelling young couple getting stuck in a dangerous town with monsters nearby is a often used monster movie plot, and this particular situation is in Kiss of the Vampire and the similar The Black Cat from 1934. In the earlier film, a young couple (played by David Manners and Julie Bishop), after a bus crash, find themselves stranded at a large house also occupied by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. These two famous Hollywood "boogey-men" play war veterans who are fighting a long-running feud between themselves using polite manners combined with treachery and henchmen, all against a background of a devil-cult that needs a young woman for a sacrifice (and it's Julie Bishop that gets selected for this unwanted honor).

In the 1963 Hammer Production Kiss of the Vampire, a young couple (Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel) are travelling in a primitive early model automobile in the countryside of Edwardian Bavaria, the vehicle conks out (no petrol) and they end up staying at a usually deserted (with good reason) nearby inn. A local group of vampires invite the couple to attend a costume party at their elegant, large home that is outfitted in typical over-stuffed but tasteful Hammer style, and the couple have no clue what they're getting into when they arrive and the husband is quickly made drunk and the young wife goes missing. We learn the vampires need to add another young woman to their blood cult, and they have selected Jennifer Daniel.

The 1934 Universal film relied on moody interactions between the half-mad Bela Lugosi in an unusual role as the "good guy" Dr. Vitus Werdegast going up against the completely mad Boris Karloff as cult leader (and art deco design devotee), the architect Hjalmar Poelzig. Edgar G. Ulmer's direction emphasizes Poelzig's home as a nest of twisting turns and secret rooms, with Lugosi and Karloff's dialogue hinting at their character's long mutual history until finally all the details come pouring out.

Werdegast's design for his large home is on top of a battlefield that is also a graveyard of dead soldiers and is threatened by unexploded mines still left in the ground. In a scene where we find out what is fueling the animosity between the two men, we visit a large sub-basement containing a sort of deco-crypt with Werdegast and Poelzig's wife (she was married to them both. It's kind of complicated) suspended in a large glass tube, her long hair swept upward as if the dead woman is perennially rising (or falling) into eternity, with the two widowed and love-sick men staring up at her like worshippers, that is, until they get back to their main business of trying to destroy each other.

Kiss of the Vampire doesn't dwell on any such story depth involving multi-relationship crisis, and is simply a case of a vampire cult, their blood-lust and their stealing a wife, "turning" her to their group's goals, that is, until the husband and an accomplice (Professor Zimmer played by Clifford Evans) pull the carpet out from under them with a rather ironic comeuppance. Acting is good and the story, such as it is, is told clearly. Nonetheless, some of the film is derivative of other Hammer films involving Peter Cushing as Van Helsing dealing with similar vampire problems, but in other ways Kiss of the Vampire is unique for creating more of the template that later Hammer films borrowed from (and creating even more clearly derived clichés that show up in Polanski's mock horror-comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers from 1967). Kiss of the Vampire has a steady, dignified pacing, good looking sets and it makes do with an unusual vampire fighting-ally that is apparently alcoholic, but just as dedicated and energetic as the nobler Van Helsing.

Both films only can end when the cult groups threatening the young lovers have been defeated, which they suitably are, and in both films it looks like the houses themselves where the evildoers dwell are defeated.

Kiss of the Vampire released September 11, 1963

The Black Cat released May 7, 1934


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Original Page November 10, 2021