Just as David Case wrote Grave of the Vampire before creating The Sopranos, Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll scripted this TV movie – obviously, a series pilot – a year or two before they hit big with Hill Street Blues. Also in 1979, the miniseries adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot had an open ending which could have led to a wandering hero series with the surviving characters on the road in search of more vampires to kill. Neither panned out.
As the site of the long-destroyed Heidecker Estate in San Francisco is developed, the shadow of a cross falls on a stretch of rubble. A feral character (Richard Lynch) claws his way to the surface but later spruces himself up and calls himself Anton Voytek, persuading married architects John and Leslie Rawlins (Jason Miller and Kathryn Harrold) to put their building projects on hold while long-lost artworks can be retrieved from catacombs under the wasteground. When they realise the art is all looted, the Rawlins turn the plausible creep in to the cops and he has to be bailed out of a holding cell by enslaved lawyer Nicole DeCamp (Jessica Walter, sadly confined to two or three good scenes). After racing the dawn to get to his bolthole before catching fire, Voytek swears revenge and kills Leslie, who later turns up as a Lucy-like vampire who needs to be staked by her loved one. The embittered, grieving John teams up with Van Helsing-like ex-cop Harry Kilcoyne to track down and kill Voytek … though an exciting climax is curtailed as the villain just walks off safely, presumably to be pursued throughout a series that never came to be. I suspect John Rawlins would neglect his architect practice in favour of monster-hunting in exactly the way David Vincent (Roy Thinnes) did in The Invaders.
Richard Lynch was an unforgettable exploitation/arthouse villain in the 1970s and ‘80s: he’s the prison rapist in Scarecrow, the craziest hunter in Open Season, the hermaphrodite messiah in God Told Me To, the Russian commander in Invasion USA, the evil guru in Bad Dreams, etc. He’s interestingly cast as a 13th century Prince known as ‘the Golden Vampire’, with a coat draped over his shoulders like a cape, wavy hair, a memorable rasp of a voice and an air of cold malice. Lynch was facially scarred after setting himself on fire in an LSD-related incident, but here he has a smooth, plasticky look that works well for a vampire character – in the finale, he does get a faceful of holy water but we never get a good look at his face afterwards. Possibly, the plan was to have him sport lasting scars from this in the series. Bochco and Kozoll establish that Voyetk committed a string of ‘throat murders’ in the 1930s and had a feud with an ex-cop/priest whose skeleton is found in the ruins – leaving open the option of doing flashback shows about that.
Whereas ‘Salem’s Lot pushed the envelope a lot, Vampire is mostly rather mild – the big shock death takes place during a commercial break – when compared with movie-of-the-week horror from earlier in the decade (eg The Night Stalker). Less indebted to Bram Stoker than ‘Salem’s Lot, it still borrows wholesale from Dracula – the latter half of the film has Rawlins and Kilcoyne tracking down Voytek’s lairs and sanctifying coffins so he can’t rest in them. Paralleling the race-the-dawn sequence, the third act has the heroes driving between locations as the sun sets, conscious that if they don’t find Voytek by nightfall they’ll have a fight on their hands.
Busy TV director E.W.Swackhamer – the initials stand for Egbert Wanderink – had just done a miniseries adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse, which Miller had played a flamboyant supporting role in, and was about to do the paranormal disaster movie The Death of Ocean View Park. Later he’d handle the David Hasselhoff-vs-Jack the Ripper TV movie Bridge Across Time.