H. G. Lewis’ Vampire
With a running time of nearly two hours, this is Herschell Gordon Lewis’ longest feature. He also considers the film to be his lone stab at some kind of mainstream film, shot in Eastmancolor with production values equal to the average TV movie of the day. Well, at least the color is brilliant for this DVD transfer, if nothing else. Outside of the better than average script, a curious lack of gore, and a few atmospheric scenes, this is just like any other H.G. Lewis horror show. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you’re one of us Lewis fans, you’ve come to regard the stilted acting, bad sound, garish sets and outrageous shocks as endearing attributes.
Happy-go-lucky Miami executive John Stone (Bill Rogers, ace voice man at K. Gorden Murray Productions and the crooked tent preacher from Shanty Tramp) receives a mysterious package from London as he’s enjoying a morning cup of coffee with his busty blonde wife Helene (Elizabeth Wilkinson of Lewis’ Suburban Roulette). The work-from-home company president has smart comic relief secretary Hester Avery (Eleanor Valli) bring the package over from his office.
The package turns out to contain two bottles of deep red brandy, which signify the first part of an inheritance. Stone, it seems, is the last remaining heir of the Alucard family. Stone toasts his ancestors on the spot.
Later, he finds himself drawn back to the bottle again and again. He’s strangely unable to sleep at night, but can’t stay awake during daylight hours. He loses interest in everyone else, including his curvaceous wife.
Worried, Helene calls on Dr. Hank Tyson (production manager Bill Kerwin, here using his Thomas Wood pseudonym). Tyson is more than a family friend and physician — he’s also carrying a torch for Helene, and makes little effort to disguise it.
Then, Stone surprises all by inviting friends over for an impromptu anniversary party. When asked about it, John declares to Helene that he’s off the rare slivovitz and back to Jack Daniels. He presents his bride with an expensive bracelet and is the charming host again.
Later, this is revealed as a sham — Stone accuses Helene of cheating on him and is back to guzzling the strange brandy. He takes off for London to claim the rest of his inheritance, which includes a large heavy wooden box of earth. On board ship, Stone confers with a deck hand about his cargo. This is actually director Lewis, filling in for a missing actor, hiding behind a phony mustache and a phonier cockney accent.
Before leaving, Stone arranges a meeting with Lord Gold (Ted Schell) to further discuss his inheritance. What follows is an odd scene between Rogers and the dandy young Lord, with clumsy dialogue explaining the actor’s youth and the presence of billiard cues without a table. Stone attempts to hypnotize Gold with his new magic ring, part of his legacy.
Then Stone reveals himself as a pasty-faced Dracula! Yes, as no one could suspect unless they knew the title of the film, the brandy is actually the blood of the long-deceased Count, who lives again through his descendant. Gold is rewarded with a broken cue through the heart. Stone/Drac hops in his wooden box and heads for home.
He allays Helene’s suspicions by hypnotizing her with the ring. Though Lewis seems proud of it in his commentrak, this is by far the crappiest looking Dracula ring ever, seemingly a few shiny objects jammed into a cube of clay. To keep the plot going, the vampire makes a list of descendants of Dracula’s enemies, and sets out on a reign of terror to claim his vengeance.
Lewis regular Wood/Kerwin (Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs) gives his usual solid performance. Wilkinson is gorgeous, but unskilled as an actress. She ended up marrying Lewis’ cameraman Andy Romanoff, who went west and became a crewman on Hollywood productions. Otto Schlesinger, who plays the Van Helsing character, ended up marrying Eleanor Valli (misspelled “Vaill” in the credits). She’d starred in Shanty Tramp the previous year under the name Lee Holland with both Schlesinger and Rogers.
Tall, rich-voiced Rogers looks uncomfortably similar to Chevy Chase in a lot of shots, but is reasonably chilling in his corpselike vampire make-up. In fact, he resembles Herk Harvey’s ghoul in Carnival of Souls a bit. And though this isn’t the incredible gorefest you’d expect from Lewis, his vampire tears chunks out of his victim’s necks instead of leaving two little punctures.
Lewis may consider this as some sort of respectable epic, but even though it shows improved lighting, composition, etc. — thank God he’s wrong. A normal movie just wouldn’t be a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie, just something less interesting. When he tries to achieve the old vampire/mirror trick by using an obvious empty frame and two similar flower pots rather than any special effect, it only serves to liven things up. The construction paper Dracula crest in the vampire’s coffin is almost cute. And though his production lacks any gloss, at least the script has more to do with the literary Dracula than Hammer films of the time did.
If it sounds like I’ve come to look at the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis as if they were some kind of blood-drenched family home movies, I’d have to plead guilty. Others may be far less forgiving of their faults, but Lewis points out, his legacy is that he made these movies before anyone else did, not necessarily better.
Something Weird Video’s transfer of this film, once thought lost, is amazingly good. Except for a couple of scratchy reels in the middle used in place of damaged stock, it was taken directly from the original negative. Lewis and Something Weird’s Mike Vraney provide another of their cozy and informative audio commentaries, in which we find out how a from-hunger amateur script became a two hour feature. Halfway through, Lewis’ early partner Dave Friedman joins them, and Lewis repeats some stories to let his buddy catch up. Later, the perennially poorly-miked Jimmy Maslin from Shock Films drops in as well.
A Herschell Gordon Lewis Gallery of Exploitation Art shows posters and press books created for Lewis’ mid-1960s features, from Moonshine Mountain through This Stuff’ll Kill Ya. Also included is a delightful curiosity piece, an old 5 minute 8mm peep show reel Nightmare at Elm Manor, made by British nudie king Harrison Marks around 1961. In this well-photographed black & white silent piece, a buxom guest of the manor (pin-up girl June Palmer) wanders around naked, and is frightened by the appearance of a creepy ghoul. There’s also a very scratchy theatrical trailer for A Taste of Blood that promises “a film that sets a new standard of terror”.