One problem with being a middle-aged genre fan is that, when it comes to movies, you’ve probably caught up with all the classics. Sure, there are always new films to check out, but vintage stuff? It gets harder and harder to find something you haven’t already seen. Still, every year for Halloween, I try to seek out something from the past that I’ve never seen.
This year it was 1972’s Grave of the Vampire.
I’d read a description of this movie somewhere years ago, and it stuck in my head because the central plot twist was far ahead of its time, and the hero was played by William Smith. I finally found it on a DVD of five public-domain vampire films for $1.99; the print looks like it was a 16mm copy, probably once used by a TV station, with faded colors and lots of jarring spots where frames are missing. But none of that hides its originality.
The movie starts in 1940, with two teens parking by a graveyard. The boy is killed by a vampire (Michael Pataki), and the girl, Leslie, is raped. She subsequently gives birth to a baby who nurses on blood. But the really interesting part is that Leslie, delusional after the attack and insisting that the baby is her boyfriend’s, is befriended in the hospital by another patient, Olga. Olga develops a protective fixation on Leslie, and when a doctor warns that the baby isn’t human and will ultimately kill its mother, Olga supports Leslie’s decision to go ahead with the birth. Olga’s ranting distrust of doctors, along with her attitude toward Leslie, hints at a lesbian being “treated” against her will, a rather daring concept for the times, even as subtext.
That plot thread gets dropped thirty minutes in, when the film leaps ahead to show the mother dead and the baby now a grown man named James, played by William Smith. This is only the first of many sudden transitions that may be a function of budget, an attempt at avant-garde pacing or just the result of a badly-patched print.
Smith is best known as a villain, and a fucking scary one at that. With a gravelly voice, a hulking physique, and a smile that’s more frightening than most bad guy’s snarls, he was a fixture on 70s TV and in B-movies from the era, most notably as Rich Man, Poor Man’s Falconetti. Seeing him cast against type as a sensitive, tormented hero makes the character more interesting than he would be otherwise. Seeking revenge against his vampire father, he prowls adult education classes at various colleges, since he knows his father prefers college girls. This rather haphazard approach finally works, and he finds his father teaching an adult education night class (!) on the occult (!!) under the name Professor Croft.
Again, the movie’s female characters get the interesting quirks. The movie sets up Anita (Diane Holden), another student, as both the hero’s girlfriend and the next victim, but neither role pans out the way you expect. Instead, James connects with Anne (Lyn Peters), an older woman who’s also a professor, while Anita confronts Croft and demands he make her a vampire. Anne, too, takes the lead in her relationship with James, insisting that it remain casual. While both characters do degenerate into typical screaming victims, their brief glimmers of self-determination make them stand out from the genre norm of the time.
Perhaps some of this is due to screenwriter David Chase, who of course went on to do The Sopranos. The credits say the script is allegedly based on his novel, The Still Life, but I can find no trace of this book actually existing, and it was probably invented to give the movie a touch of imaginary class. Chase also contributed scripts to one of my formative TV shows, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, so he’s not a genre dilettante.
Grave of the Vampire, then, is notable for its details rather than its broad strokes. If you can watch it in the context of its times, it’s quite revolutionary in its treatment of its female characters, allowing them a glimmer of equality in a genre where they were usually required to do little but look pretty and scream. Compare it to its British contemporary Dracula AD 1972, and you can see how great this distance really is.
Because the movie has gone into public domain, it’s easy to find on the net. One link is here.
Alex Bledsoe is author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, and the forthcoming Wake of the Bloody Angel), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the first Tufa novel, The Hum and the Shiver.