“It often happens in life that the most beautiful things are made from the most unpromising of materials, don’t you find?” says Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) to newlyweds Gerald (Edward de Souza) and Marianne Harcourt (Jennifer Daniel), the leads of Don Sharp’s The Kiss of the Vampire. They’re honeymooning in Bavaria and stuck in the middle of nowhere thanks to Gerald’s lack of foresight. (The schmuck forgot to bring extra petrol for his car.) Ravna’s referring to his opulent estate and wine production, but the line also reads as meta commentary on the film’s background as a would-be trilogy capper to Hammer Film Productions’ Dracula series.
Before Anthony Hinds blocked and bent the script into its final shape, Hammer meant for The Kiss of the Vampire to finish off the saga begun by Terence Fisher’s 1958 all-timer adaptation of Bram Stoker’s all-timer novel, best known today for Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing’s dueling respective roles as the evil Count and his archnemesis, Van Helsing. Hammer followed up Dracula with The Brides of Dracula in 1960, in which only Cushing, the Dudley Do-Right to Lee’s Snidely Whiplash, appeared. Dracula is hardly mentioned by name—for the best given that Lee is nowhere to be found on screen anyhow.
One step thus removed from the Fisher movie, Hammer wisely chose to divorce 1963’s The Kiss of the Vampire entirely from Dracula iconography, making the film its own entity: a morbid, kinky, richly staged movie that frames vampirism as a virulent class plague targeting and infecting members of society’s upper crust, who in turn prey on the uninfected of the well-off and force them into their cult. The Harcourts, having stumbled upon the remote hamlet that Ravna claims as his fiefdom, capture the doctor’s interest, Marianne specifically. She’s beautiful and charming, he’s an egomaniacal blood-sucking cult leader. They’re made for each other. So Ravna abducts Marianne and gaslights poor Gerald by removing all trace that she ever existed, leaving the groom distraught and in dire need of help.
There’s no Van Helsing around to extend aid, so instead Gerald calls on Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), an experienced drunk and even more experienced vampire slayer. Zimmer shows up in The Kiss of the Vampire’s first scene, a cloaked and silent figure on the periphery of a funeral held beneath a cloudy sky; he approaches the coffin and drives a shovel clean through the lid, eliciting a scream from its occupant plus a pool of blood. It’s the best moment in the whole picture, which is saying a lot given the gothic pleasures that unfurl in it wake, but Zimmer’s introduction sets the macabre tone for what’s to come with an emphatic jolt that’s absent throughout the rest of the picture. It’s fortunate that Evans and Sharp play the sequence out with a force that resonates until the climax (which, maybe appropriately, is the worst moment in the whole picture).
Sharp and Hinds create a pseudo-symbiotic relationship between the movie’s opening and its first, second and third acts. Because Zimmer makes such an impression upfront, the movie and the cast can play relaxed and casual: There’s an eerie ease baked into the filmmaking that allows viewers to bask in the production design, which is characterized through contrasting scale. The Harcourts are often dwarfed by their surroundings, from the woods they find themselves stuck in to the town itself, where iron wrought gates and door knockers are framed so that their actual size is either emphasized or inflated. Even the second floor window of the local inn is shot to highlight its position over the arriving Harcourts, making them appear not only as strangers in a strange place but as terribly small. They’re singled out as prey wandering into a trap right away.
That dynamic plays out as Ravna springs that trap, Willman relishing the acquired self-regard of his role with each passing scene. He plays the part with dignity as well as the smug superiority of folks living in life’s upper echelons, or unlife’s upper echelons. Ravna is a plague on man as both a member of the ultra-affluent set and blood-drinking monster who abducts the innocent into his makeshift family, comprising his son, Carl (Barry Warren) and Sabena (Jacquie Wallis). The duality indulges in critique of wealth culture and classic horror tropes, and this, along with Sharp’s craftsmanship and Hinds’ writing, gives The Kiss of a Vampire an identity all its own. Maybe it would’ve worked as another Dracula movie, but the genre is perhaps better off that it became an altogether different beast.
Director: Don Sharp
Writer: Anthony Hinds (as John Elder)
Starring: Clifford Evans, Noel Willman, Edward de Souza, Jennifer Daniel, Barry Warren, Jacquie Wallis
The film is now available on a special edition Scream Factory Blu-ray.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.