The Vampire (1957) 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 I’m tempted to speculate was created by United Artists in answer to Columbia’s The Werewolf from the preceding year. This movie’s 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 isn’t quite as good as its probable model, though it does offer a depth of character that is most unexpected in a 1950’s 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 doesn’t appear that Campbell is in, but then the boy hears him groaning from the far corner of the main laboratory space. Though it isn’t 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 “the key to everything.” Beecher’s best guess as to the cause of Campbell’s subsequent death is heart failure.

     While we’re on the subject of substandard hearts, let’s have a look at one of Beecher’s regular patients, a certain Marion Wilkins (Ann Staunton). Miss Wilkins not only has a weak heart, she’s 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 Campbell’s 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 Beecher’s migraines, you see, and he really isn’t 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 Wilkins’s 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 “It was you!!!!” Given what we already know about Miss Wilkins’s health, it’s no surprise when the exertion proves too much for her and she keels over dead into Beecher’s 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 doctor’s notice: on the right side of the dead woman’s 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 that’s gone on so far.

     Meanwhile, the university that funded Campbell’s 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 Campbell’s 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, there’s something that’s been weighing on Beecher’s 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 lady’s summons, and what’s more, Beecher has since become aware of a vague, dream-like memory of having been to his patient’s house some time the night before. It’s also occurred to Paul that he had been carrying two vials of pills in the pockets of his suit yesterday— his usual migraine medication and the mysterious drug that Campbell gave him— 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 Campbell’s drug by mistake? Beaumont’s explanation that Campbell’s research was aimed at adjusting the levels of violent behavior in his lab animals— adjusting it upward— isn’t exactly the reassurance that Beecher was hoping for.

     The plot thickens when Dr. Winston makes some interesting discoveries while looking over Campbell’s lab. All of the late scientist’s 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 species— the cage full of vampire bats. Not only that, the pills which seem to have been the end result of Campbell’s 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 Campbell’s 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 what’s what when somebody breaks into the lab after nightfall and kills Dr. Winston, especially once an autopsy reveals that he died of “capillary disintegration” just like all of Dr. Campbell’s guinea pigs. And this time, when Beecher takes a look at the body, he takes note of the delicate puncture wounds on Winston’s 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 Wilkins’s 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 there’s nothing left of her but a gore-soaked skeleton when the men from the medical examiner’s office pry the lid off her coffin.

     By this point, Beecher is dead certain the pill he took on the night before Marion’s death was one of those that Campbell gave him, and he’s been downing one every evening since then— initially for fear that to do otherwise would kill him the way it killed the guinea pigs, but soon enough because he’s 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. He’s right on the money, of course...

     The Vampire’s 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 character’s struggle with drug addiction and in his handling of the doctor’s 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 girl’s sole living parent, but he is in no condition to take care of her once Campbell’s 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 Butler’s terrified reaction to the change seems utterly ludicrous when juxtaposed with the lumpy rubber mask into which Beecher’s face turns. It’s 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.



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