‘Cake is so delicious. I can’t believe dead people haven’t found a way to eat it.’
Thirty years before he created The Sopranos, David Chase essayed a more literal tale of a blood-sucking family riven with internal feuds and surprising loyalties in Grave of the Vampire – which purports to be based on a novel (The Still Life) no one has ever found a copy of (the film credits director John Hayes with a screen treatment). It’s part of the cycle of modish Californian monster movies kicked off by Count Yorga Vampire, but is innovative in structure, tone, theme and character. It boasts a rare screen vampire who seems humanly evil rather than a Satanic figure, an interesting half-vampire antagonist (predating the very similar Blade by a year), a storyline which isn’t just a rerun of Dracula, and even a spin on the search for the reincarnated lost love (this vampire’s dead wife was not a redemptive figure whose loss turned him bad but a wicked partner in crime)..
The first third is set in the 1940, as mouldy vampire Charles Croydon (Michael Pataki) emerges from a California tomb he has lain in (under the name Caleb Croft,) since being electrocuted in a police chase on the Boston subway. He murders an Archie-look college kid and rapes his girlfriend (Kitty Vallacher, one of the hippie chicks from Deathmaster). As the cobwebby brute drains victims and takes on a smoother look (with a vintage Lugosi radio clip on the soundtrack), the girl goes against medical advice and brings to term a grey-faced baby who suckles on her blood. In an affecting montage, the half-vampire kid stands in shadows watching others playing in the sun and the mother gives her whole life for him. The still-born child grows up to be James Eastman (William Smith), among the screen’s first Angel-style heroic semi-vampires (he lives off animal blood and raw meat) and – as stated in a catch-up voice over that sets out where the plot is going – becomes determined to avenge his dead mother by destroying his monster father. Croydon has reinvented himself as professor Adrian Lockwood, who teaches a popular night class in folklore – but still predates like a sex criminal in parks. English lecturer Anne Arthur (Lyn Peters) may be the reincarnation of Croydon’s evil wife but falls into bed with the brooding son, adding to the generation gap conflict.
The interesting script and excellent, unusual performances are blunted by sometimes pedestrian stagings but Hayes stages some horrific moments more brutally than similar scenes in the Count Yorga films. The twist ending traditional in the early 1970s takes on a genuinely tragic dimension as the avenging son defeats the father in a scrappy, violent tussle but is transformed into a full vampire in the process (I don’t love a ‘the end – or is it?’ title, though). Pataki (a victim in The Return of Count Yorga) and Smith would both go on to play Dracula (in Dracula’s Dog and The Erotic Rites of Countess Dracula). Pataki’s vampire is initially a feral goon but transforms into a suaver figure – like Count Yorga, he hosts a séance at one point and switches from a natty coat-draped-over-shoulders look to a traditional Dracula cape – who is still interestingly limited. While trying to filch a book from a library, he flirts with a librarian (Margaret Fairchild) who doesn’t fall under his sway – and is enraged that the woman strings him along (it doesn’t end well for her). Smith is hulking yet sensitive, well out of his usual biker thug image – doing a lot in his sweet, odd courtship scenes (typical Case line – ‘I guess the next logical question is how come we’re not twenty years old and playing the bongo drums downstairs?’). Secondary characters in ‘70s horror films are often from stock – like Larry Cohen, Case rounds them out or puts a strange spin on people like Olga (Lieux Dressler), who becomes the unwilling mother’s helpmeet (and sadly disappears from the film after the montage), or Anita (Diane Holden), the mature groupie who begs to be turned into a vampire and winds up with her throat slashed in the shower. Even walk-on cops, witnesses and victims get good stuff to do.