The Vampire Beast Craves Blood / The Blood Beast Terror / Blood Beast from Hell / The Deathshead Vampire (1967/1969) -**½
Peter Cushing once identified The Vampire Beast Craves Blood as the worst movie he ever made. Certainly it isn’t a good film, but I’m afraid I can’t concur with that assessment. Cushing, after all, was in both Dracula, A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, both of which are much worse than this lumpy and stupid, but fundamentally competent Tigon production. But pondering the question of Peter Cushing’s worst picture brings to light something far more interesting than any possible specific answer. It quickly becomes apparent that none of Cushing’s clunkers can compare with the utter dreck at the lowest stratum of Christopher Lee’s career, or John Carradine’s, or Lon Chaney Jr.’s. Even in the 1970’s, when Cushing’s admitted goal was to keep constantly busy so that he’d have no idle time in which to miss his deceased wife, Cushing never made a Howling II, a Vampire Hookers, a Dracula vs. Frankenstein. I wonder why that was? His happy, lifelong marriage saved him from those common entertainment industry woes of child support, alimony, and other burdensome divorce terms, but is that really enough to account for it? Were Cushing’s tastes sufficiently modest that he never needed an emergency paycheck, or that a working holiday on the Continent never held any appeal for him? Was his agent just that good? Whatever the reason, it was a rare thing for someone in Cushing’s business to bottom out with films that still met minimum normal standards of production value and professionalism, to make it through a 40-year career without once participating in a genuine cinematic disaster. But to bring this back around to The Vampire Beast Craves Blood, we have here one of those occasions when a genuine cinematic disaster would have been preferable in some ways to what we actually got.
The filmmakers would like us to believe that big game hunter and amateur naturalist Frederick Britewell (William Wilde) is in Darkest Africa, but even the most cursory glance at the scenery is enough to tell you that this he’s really someplace like the Scottish Lowlands instead. Be that as it may, the purpose of Britewell’s safari is to gather exotic moth and butterfly specimens for entomologist Dr. Carl Malinger (Robert Flemyng, from The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and The Body Stealers). What he ultimately brings back to England is a bunch of huge pupae, even bigger than those of the atlas moth. Indeed, if starlings pupated, these things would be just about the right size.
It’ll be a while yet before Britewell gets home, however, and in the meantime, the guest whom Malinger will spend the most time entertaining is Inspector Quennell (Cushing) of the local police force. This is because somebody keeps killing people in the vicinity of the school where Malinger teaches, including some of the professor’s own students. Malinger isn’t a suspect per se, nor are his daughter, Claire (Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter’s Wanda Ventham), or his butler, Granger (Kevin Stoney, from Shadow of the Cat). It’s just that their acquaintance with the victims gives Quennell hope of discovering some pattern to link the otherwise random-seeming murders. The inspector is fairly certain that a single culprit is at work, because the modus operandi is always the same. The bodies are invariably found almost empty of blood, the extent of the exsanguination seemingly impossible to square with the severity of the injuries, which are bad, but not that bad. The wounds themselves are characteristically weird, too. None of the doctors who’ve looked at them can figure out how they were inflicted, although some have suggested some sort of animal as the attacker, despite there being nothing sufficiently powerful or aggressive among the area’s native fauna. Finally, there are the flakes found at each crime scene, vaguely triangular, papery, iridescent things like oversized bits of drab confetti. They’re the weirdest clue of all, for nobody Quennell has shown them to can offer even a guess as to what they might be.
Oddly, it’s the killer animal theory that gets Quennell to take a closer look at Malinger and his household. The one living witness to any of the crimes is a coachman who had let one of the victims off just moments before he was slain. Unfortunately, he’s apparently gone mad from shock, and Quennell naturally can’t get anything like coherent testimony out of him in that state. The coachman’s ravings are not totally senseless, though, and he keeps going on about huge, black wings. What has that to do with Malinger? Well, it happens that the professor enjoys falconry, and he prefers to hunt with eagles. The horribly scarred condition of Granger’s face suggests that Malinger’s birds have attacked a human at least once before, and are strong enough to do serious damage. Indeed, we’ll be seeing later on that they’re fully capable of killing a man, when one of them gets loose— or rather, is let loose— to finish the job on the butler.
The thing is, we’ve already seen the killer by the time that happens, and it’s definitely no eagle. Rather, it’s sort of an insect-person, like a more developed and slightly less craptacular version of Janice Starlin’s vespid alter ego in The Wasp Woman. We also know by then the true nature of Malinger’s involvement. Both revelations occur when Britewell finally arrives to hand over his specimens to a suspiciously paranoid Malinger, and attracts the attention of Claire. It might seem at first that she’s romantically interested in the naturalist, but then she turns into a bug monster, follows him down the road upon his departure from the house, and swoops down on him to drink his blood. Claire’s conversation with her father after her return establishes that he is responsible for her condition, whether by transforming his real daughter into a were-moth or (more likely, I think) by somehow breeding a 120-pound deathshead hawk moth that drinks human blood and can take human form during the hours of daylight. He’s also got another one in the basement— a male— but it isn’t quite finished yet.
Anyway, Quennell has just about given up on the eagle connection when one of his increasingly frequent night patrols fortuitously brings him within earshot of the attack on Britewell. He and his trusty sidekick, Sergeant Allan (Glynn Edwards, of Burke & Hare and Shaft in Africa), arrive too late to effect a proper rescue, but they do reach the dying man in time for him to whisper “Deathshead…” before breathing his last. Allan recognizes Britewell as the man whom he directed to the Malinger house that afternoon, so when he hears the next day that Malinger claims not to have known the latest victim, he’s able to call him out on the lie. That leads Quennell to postpone the vacation he was supposed to take with his daughter, Meg (Vanessa Howard, from Corruption and Girly), for another trip round to Malinger’s— only to discover that the place is empty but for Granger’s corpse, the professor having realized that this time, his “daughter” had unavoidably led the authorities straight to him. Enough remains of the laboratory for Quennell to understand that Malinger was up to some weird shit in his spare time, but not enough to indicate what.
By a remarkable coincidence, the venue for that vacation the inspector’s boss is forcing him to take in spite of everything happens to be the very same village to which Malinger fled. One of the other guests at the inn where the Quennells stay (John Paul, from Doomwatch and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb) has a son (Trog’s David Griffin) whom Meg fancies— and who just happens to be a budding entomologist capable of providing Quennell with the clues that “deathshead” is a species of moth, and that moths’ wings have scales that look exactly like miniature versions of those confetti-things from the crime scenes back home. And the lad’s father just happens to have met another newcomer to the village, a real entomologist called Miles, who sounds a lot like the fugitive Malinger when Mr. Warrender describes him. So Quennell unexpectedly finds himself back on the case, only this time, he knows enough to uncover the incredible truth.
Make no mistake— the premise of this movie is incredible, in the full, original sense of the word. There is no question you can ask of that premise that The Vampire Beast Craves Blood is adequately prepared to answer on terms that anyone could believe. It can’t tell us whether Claire is a woman who turns into a moth, or a moth that turns into a woman. It can’t tell us how Malinger managed whichever of those equally amazing tricks it is, or why he’s having such a difficult time repeating it. It can’t tell us anything about the mechanics of the transformation itself, let alone how Claire manages to disencumber herself of all her bustles and corsets and crinolines and assorted other Victorian sartorial impediments so quickly when the change comes over her. Most of all, it can’t explain what the hell is going on in Malinger’s head, either with regard to why he ever wanted a pet vampire were-moth in the first place, or with regard to his change of heart at the end. I have absolutely no idea how Peter Bryan could bring himself to write such ostentatious drivel, or how anyone involved in bringing it to the screen could have so successfully pretended to take it seriously.
Now that being the case, any experienced cinemasochist going into The Vampire Beast Craves Blood would naturally expect to be bowled over by the film’s idiocy and ineptitude, for surely any film with so daft a premise must have the technical chops to match. Such expectations can only be reinforced by any discussion of the film’s structure, with its frequent digressions into irrelevancies like Claire’s theater troupe, its tendency to introduce new characters at the most wildly inappropriate times, and its placement of the business about Malinger’s eagle too late in the film for it to serve its designed purpose as a red herring. And yet somehow The Vampire Beast Craves Blood never becomes as riotously bad as I thought it would— indeed, as I was looking forward to. It’s tempting to blame Peter Cushing. As always, he brings a towering solidity to the film; it’s weird at first to see that he isn’t playing the mad scientist, but in a horror movie characterized by an astonishingly competent police force, it makes sense to cast Cushing as the detective instead. But there’s also a strange sort of seemingly instinctive technical know-how on display in The Vampire Beast Craves Blood, as if the people making it had seen so many gothic mad science flicks that they intuitively understood how to get the look and feel of the thing right, even while committing the occasional glaring fuck-up like letting the camera fall out of focus during the monster’s death scene. Whatever it is, it leaves the movie in a frustrating gray area, neither good enough nor bad enough to be truly memorable or impressive.