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May 18th, 2018

Taped off [twitter.com profile] TalkingPicsTV a million years ago and watched last weekend for light entertainment. This was the first serious attempt by a production company other than Hammer to capitalise on the success they had had with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958). Indeed, they hired Jimmy Sangster, who had written both, to do the script, which makes it of interest straight away, and that's before you factor in Barbara Shelley, who had also already been in a couple of Hammer films and is just wonderful anyway.

Despite the 'Vampire' of the title, the film is more Frankenstein than Dracula. The chief villain, Dr. Callistratus, runs a lunatic asylum and conducts experiments relating to blood types and the artificial preservation of life on patients strapped to beds in a dungeon room beneath a laboratory with tubes full of bubbling coloured liquids. We eventually learn that local people accused him of being a 'vampire' because of his blood experiments and staked him through the heart, but he survived thanks to some kind of culture which he had introduced into his own body (it got very hand-wavey here). Although his hunch-backed servant, Carl, bribed a drunken doctor to resurrect him by performing a heart transplant, the culture has left him with an incurable condition in which his own blood is destroying itself - so he needs constant blood transfusions to survive. In other words, we're more or less at the exact mid-point between the lightly pseudo-scientific vampirism of Hammer's Dracula and the fantastical science of their Frankenstein. Callistratus himself looks more like a corpulent Lugosi than either Lee or any Frankenstein I can think of, though, and indeed the hunch-backed Carl too reflects an ongoing debt to the Universal movies of the '30s and '40s.

It's not exactly a brilliant film, but it's better than the very low expectations I had for it. Most of the performances are competent, if sometimes a bit hammy, there is a modicum of reflection on corrupt justice and the ethics of medical science, and there's a nice sense of tension and peril building up to the climax. Certainly, Barbara Shelley does her job well as a rather nervous young woman who is nevertheless determined to rescue her fiancé from injustice even if that means facing danger herself, and some of her frocks were absolutely fabulous. It's a pity that Talking Pictures' rather shonky print meant I couldn't see them as well as I would have liked to, but then again the same shonkiness probably helped to hide a lot of sins in the cheap sets department. Nonetheless, I did notice that the people who made this ('Artistes Alliance' / Tempean Films) clearly had quite a lot more studio space available than Hammer, as some shots really made a point of showing off large interior spaces.

On the very much down side, Shelley's character is subjected to an icky attempted rape by a corrupt official - a motif which seems to have been thrown into films of this genre and period all too often for the sake of cheap titillation with no real plot value. Other offenders are Captain Clegg, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Blood on Satan's Claw - and that's just off the top of my head. The one that I'll allow is Witchfinder General, where I think it does serve a purpose in conveying the general brutality of the circumstances, and in making Richard's commitment to marrying and protecting Sarah afterwards a more potent reflection of his love for her.

Meanwhile, I was fascinated to note that Callistratus' servant Carl develops an affection for Shelley's character (Madeleine) which motivates him to prevent her rape and then help her and her fiancé (John) escape the prison, all because he has earlier seen her image in a locket taken from John by the guards. This reminded me straight away of Klove helping Sarah and Simon in Scars of Dracula because he has similarly seen her picture long before, and in turn made me wonder where the trope actually originates - here? Or in another common source? It sort of relates to Dracula being taken with Lucy's image and then tracking her down to claim him for his own in Hammer's film of the same year, which of course gives us a link through Jimmy Sangster as the script writer - but a villain deciding he will have a girl he's seen in a picture isn't quite the same as a servant rebelling against his master to save a girl he's seen in a picture, and it's the latter I'm really interested in. If anyone knows more about where the trope originates, let me know! Certainly, it would be truly sad if by the time of Scars Hammer had sunk so low as to have ripped this motif off directly from this, a second-rate rip-off of their own films...


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