The Vampire/Mark of the Vampire (1957) ***
There were two movies called The Vampire released in 1957. One was an odd little Mexican Universal wannabe which some people claim features the first fanged screen vampire since Max Schreck in Nosferatu, and which was brought north of the border by the redoubtable K. Gordon Murray. The other was this equally peculiar film, which Iím tempted to speculate was created by United Artists in answer to Columbiaís The Werewolf from the preceding year. This movieís revisionist, scientific approach to its subject matter is very similar to that of the earlier film, and considering the age-old association between vampires and werewolves in just about any cultural context you could care to name, the circumstantial case for a connection between the two seems strong. Unfortunately, The Vampire isnít quite as good as its probable model, though it does offer a depth of character that is most unexpected in a 1950ís monster movie.
In one of the tiny California towns where these movies always seem to be set, a delivery boy brings a box full of fresh lab rats to the home/laboratory of Dr. Matt Campbell (Wood Romoff). At first glance, it doesnít appear that Campbell is in, but then the boy hears him groaning from the far corner of the main laboratory space. Though it isnít clear just how, the scientist is obviously a very sick man, and he sends the boy back downtown to fetch the neighborhood doctor, Paul Beecher (John Beal, from Amityville 3-D and the 1939 remake of The Cat and the Canary). Campbell is nearly dead by the time Beecher arrives, and his last act is to hand the doctor a vial of pills while mumbling some cryptic utterance to the effect that those pills are ďthe key to everything.Ē Beecherís best guess as to the cause of Campbellís subsequent death is heart failure.
While weíre on the subject of substandard hearts, letís have a look at one of Beecherís regular patients, a certain Marion Wilkins (Ann Staunton). Miss Wilkins not only has a weak heart, sheís also extremely nervous and prone to sudden fits of panic. She comes in to see Beecher right after he returns from his futile visit to Campbellís place, but the doctor has his nurse, Carol Butler (Coleen Gray, of The Phantom Planet and The Leech Woman), send her away with some mild sedatives and an appointment for the following morning. The business with Campbell has triggered another one of Beecherís migraines, you see, and he really isnít up to treating any patient other than himself at the moment. Beecher asks his eleven-ish daughter, Betsy (Lydia Reed), to bring him the bottle of migraine pills he always carries in his coat pocket, downs one, and then goes to sleep in his office.
The next morning, Beecher gets an urgent call from Miss Wilkinsís cleaning lady, who came over and found her boss in a terrible state. The doctor rushes over, but his reception from Marion is curious indeed. The woman begins shrieking hysterically the moment she lays eyes on Beecher, telling him to get away from her, and repeating over and over again that ďIt was you!!!!Ē Given what we already know about Miss Wilkinsís health, itís no surprise when the exertion proves too much for her and she keels over dead into Beecherís arms. When Sheriff Buck Donnelly (Kenneth Tobey, from The Thing and It Came from Beneath the Sea) arrives on the scene a little while later, Beecher again gives the cause of death as heart failure, but most observant viewers will by now have spotted something that seems to have escaped the doctorís notice: on the right side of the dead womanís throat are a pair of tiny, round marks, separated from each other by just about the same distance as a pair of human canine teeth. And since this movie is called The Vampire, this little detail is probably more important than anything else thatís gone on so far.
Meanwhile, the university that funded Campbellís research has dispatched the head of its psychology department, Dr. Will Beaumont (Dabbs Greer, from House of Wax and It!: The Terror from Beyond Space), to pick up the pieces. Beaumont brings with him another scientist named Henry Winston (James Griffith, of The Amazing Transparent Man and Manhunt in Space), and it is the latter man to whom the task of continuing Campbellís work will mostly fall. Beecher makes a point of returning to the Campbell place in order to meet with the two new researchers; for one thing, Beaumont was a friend of his back in high school, and for another, thereís something thatís been weighing on Beecherís mind ever since the incident with Marion Wilkins. Wilkins, remember, seemed terrified of Beecher when he came to check up on her in response to the cleaning ladyís summons, and whatís more, Beecher has since become aware of a vague, dream-like memory of having been to his patientís house some time the night before. Itís also occurred to Paul that he had been carrying two vials of pills in the pockets of his suit yesterdayó his usual migraine medication and the mysterious drug that Campbell gave himó and neither he nor Betsy is entirely sure just which one of the very similar bottles it was that she took out to give to him the night before. What if Beecher took Campbellís drug by mistake? Beaumontís explanation that Campbellís research was aimed at adjusting the levels of violent behavior in his lab animalsó adjusting it upwardó isnít exactly the reassurance that Beecher was hoping for.
The plot thickens when Dr. Winston makes some interesting discoveries while looking over Campbellís lab. All of the late scientistís lab animals have died of some strange, apparently viral disease that causes mammalian flesh literally to disintegrate. All the animals, that is, except for those of one speciesó the cage full of vampire bats. Not only that, the pills which seem to have been the end result of Campbellís labors (neither Winston nor Beaumont yet knows about the vial Campbell passed on to Beecher) contain an ingredient which was extracted somehow from those bats. And according to Campbellís notes, this drug is a powerful stimulant for aggressive behavior, and is also highly addictive. In fact, Campbell found that his animals, once exposed to the drug, would die if it were not administered to them at least once per day.
Well I think you know enough now to figure out whatís what when somebody breaks into the lab after nightfall and kills Dr. Winston, especially once an autopsy reveals that he died of ďcapillary disintegrationĒ just like all of Dr. Campbellís guinea pigs. And this time, when Beecher takes a look at the body, he takes note of the delicate puncture wounds on Winstonís neck, which he now realizes he had seen earlier on Marion Wilkins as well. This connection is suggestive enough that Sheriff Donnelly immediately secures a court order for Miss Wilkinsís exhumation, but nobody involved is fully prepared for what that exhumation reveals. The Wilkins woman died of the same mysterious affliction, alright; indeed, she had it so bad that thereís nothing left of her but a gore-soaked skeleton when the men from the medical examinerís office pry the lid off her coffin.
By this point, Beecher is dead certain the pill he took on the night before Marionís death was one of those that Campbell gave him, and heís been downing one every evening since thenó initially for fear that to do otherwise would kill him the way it killed the guinea pigs, but soon enough because heís developed a full-fledged chemical dependency for the strange drug. Beecher begins to lose his grip on his life, partly as an effect of his new addiction, and partly because of the mental strain that accompanies his increasingly strong belief that he is the vampire-like killer who has recently begun stalking his town. Heís right on the money, of course...
The Vampireís greatest strength is the believability of its characters and of their relationships to each other. John Beal is especially convincing as Paul Beecher, both in his portrayal of the characterís struggle with drug addiction and in his handling of the doctorís escalating sense of horror at the increasingly strong possibility that he has become a killer without even realizing it. And for once, the presence of a child with a major role in a monster movie actually adds something to the film. With Betsy around, the stakes for Paul are much higher; he is apparently the girlís sole living parent, but he is in no condition to take care of her once Campbellís drug starts working its magic on him. In fact, his monstrous new alter-ego makes him an active threat to her safety. In this respect, The Vampire echoes the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but with the important distinction that Beecher only gradually comes to realize his role in the strange and frightening events that have gripped his town. Beecher is, in effect, a detective on the trail of a killer who turns out to be himself.
On the other hand, The Vampire is hindered by uneven pacing, especially in the crucial final act, and by special effects that are nothing short of miserable. Worse yet, the filmmakers seem to have had no idea how pathetic their monster makeup was. Witness, for example, the climactic scene in which we finally see Paul transform into the vampire. Carol Butlerís terrified reaction to the change seems utterly ludicrous when juxtaposed with the lumpy rubber mask into which Beecherís face turns. Itís almost as dissonant as the monster reaction shots in The Giant Claw, but while the beast in that movie was so impossibly ill-conceived as to become compellingly hilarious, the monster makeup in The Vampire is merely sad. It leaves you with the sense that a movie that was this good otherwise deserved better from its effects department.