The Vampire: A novel kind of bloodsucker

The Vampire directed by Paul LandresThe Vampire directed by Paul Landres

The Vampire directed by Paul LandresFairly recently, I had some words to say about the excellent Mexican horror film The Vampire (or, as it was known upon release, El Vampiro), which came out in 1957 and starred Spanish actor German Robles as the Count Lavud, a bloodsucker in the very traditional, uh, vein. This South-of-the-border neck nosher, thus, could turn into a bat, cast no reflection in a mirror, could hypnotize his victims from afar, suffered from crucifixaphobia, spent the day sleeping in a coffin, and could only be killed by a stake through the heart. But that same year, in the U.S., another film entitled The Vampire would be released, telling of a very UNtraditional blood feeder with not a single one of the above-mentioned attributes. It is a film that I had long wanted to see, and a recent viewing has served to demonstrate to me what a really fine picture it is, as well. The film was released in June of that year alongside another – the baby-boomer favorite The Monster That Challenged the World – to make for one fairly terrific double feature. The Vampire was made by the same team that would go on to create another film that I had recently watched, April ‘58’s The Return of Dracula, and like that later film, it is a surprisingly serious and well-put-together little B picture that just might surprise viewers with its nonrisible presentation, fine acting, and aura of solid professionalism.

The picture introduces the viewer to the kind of doctor who we all wish we might have as our own PCP. He is Dr. Paul Beecher (played by Joplin, MO-born actor John Beal, who has a filmography extending all the way back to 1933), a physician who not only exudes warmth and caring to his patients, but who makes nothing of their avowals of being unable to pay, telling them to “just pay me whatever you can whenever you can.” (Boy, how I wish I had a doctor like that!) Beecher makes an emergency house call to the abode of one Dr. Campbell, a scientist who is dying of an apparent heart attack. Campbell had been working on some kind of method of regressing the brain to a primitive state and then reversing the process to improve the intellect. On his deathbed, he gives Beecher a jar of pills, which Beecher brings home with him. Trouble arises, however, when the doctor’s daughter, Betsy (young Lydia Reed, who had already appeared in Good Morning, Miss Dove and High Society, and would go on to appear in TV’s popular The Real McCoys), hands Beecher the mystery pills instead of his migraine tablets, and the good doctor pops one of them. The pill causes him to black out, and the next morning, one of his patients, a pretty blonde named Marion (Ann Staunton, whose career would be comprised of pretty much all television work after this), is found in a hysterical state, with two puncture wounds in her neck. Marion, unfortunately, soon passes away.

As the days progress, Beecher finds that he has become addicted to those pills, waking up every morning with little memory of what had transpired on the previous night. But on each of those nights, there had been another murder victim: Henry Winston, the scientist who had taken Campbell’s place (and played by James Griffith, who had recently appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing); Carrie Dietz (Hallene Hill, an actress whose filmography also extends all the way back to the early ‘30s), an elderly, half-deaf patient of the doctor’s; and Dr. Will Beaumont, the university head sponsoring the scientific work (and played by the great character actor Dabbs Greer, who had already appeared in the sci-fi champs Invasion of the Body Snatchers and It! The Terror From Beyond Space, and who would go on to appear in over 100 film roles and 600 TV episodes). Even the doctor’s pretty secretary, Carol Butler (Nebraska-born Colleen Gray, more frequently identified with such film noirs as Kiss of Death, Nightmare Alley, The Sleeping City, Kansas City Confidential and The Killing, as well as numerous Westerns such as Red River, but here making her debut in horror, going on to appear in such films as The Leech Woman and Phantom Planet), is attacked on the street one night. The town’s sheriff, Buck Donnelly (Kenneth Tobey, star of such ‘50s sci-fi classics as The Thing From Another World, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath the Sea), is at a loss to explain the homicides, but Beecher himself does a little investigating and discovers that the pills that he has been taking contain nothing less than the blood of the vampire bat. Could that have any possible connection with what has been going on? What would you think?

The Vampire directed by Paul LandresThe Vampire, despite having been shot in only one week on a budget of just $115,000 (!), and despite its brief running time of just 74 minutes, looks just fine on screen, features very adequate special FX (Beal’s transformations are nicely brought off, indeed), showcases a serious screenplay, and moves along briskly and with purpose. That screenplay, a very talky one by Pat Fielder (who had also demonstrated his talents in The Monster That Challenged the World, The Return of Dracula and The Flame Barrier), is an intelligent and convincing one, presenting us with a very unusual monster, and spotlighting the then-novel concept of pill addiction. Director Paul Landres (who would also be responsible for The Flame Barrier and The Return of Dracula) brings his picture home in a taut and no-nonsense manner, crafting suspense and chills on a tight budget. The film’s score, by Gerald Fried (The Killing, Paths of Glory, I Bury the Living, The Lost Missile, Curse of the Faceless Man), similar to the work he would provide in The Return of Dracula, is largely comprised of blaring horns and pounding tympani, and goes far in adding shocks to the film’s proceedings. And the fine cinematography of Jack MacKenzie (Isle of the Dead, The Flame Barrier), especially in the scenes that transpire at night, goes far in creating an eerie feel.

The Vampire includes any number of impressively composed sequences, such as the murder of Dr. Winston, which takes place offscreen while the viewer only gets to see a flaming Bunsen burner in the foreground; the exhumation of Marion’s body, which is shown as having completely decomposed in only a matter of days, the result of “capillary disintegration;” the offscreen murder of Carrie Dietz, her small lapdog watching and shivering from the safety of a nearby shrubbery; the murder of Dr. Beaumont, which we do get to witness, and his being placed in an incinerator by the bloodsucking fiend; and the film’s finale, in which Beecher transforms into his monstrous alter ego and then attacks Carol, who flees outdoors while Donnelly and his partner Ryan (Herb Vigran, who many will remember as a crook in a half dozen episodes of The Adventures of Superman, or perhaps from his 350 other TV and film roles!) follow. But perhaps best of all is an earlier scene in which the fiend stalks and then chases after Carol at night, creeping up from behind tree trunks on the small-town streets. It is a stunningly well-done sequence, with Carol just narrowly escaping doom at the hands – or rather, the fangs – of the fiendish killer.

As for the film’s monster itself, which we only get to see for the first time at the movie’s 49-minute mark, he is a rather pleasing creation, sporting wildly unkempt hair, bushy eyebrows, blubbery lips and scabrous skin; truly, an intimidating enough proposition, although truth to tell, I have seen worse on NYC’s subways at night. Unfortunately, the viewer cannot help but feel that Dr. Beecher’s ultimate fate in the film is a tragic and undeserved one. Beecher, as is shown, is not only a warm and experienced family doctor (and, flabbergastingly enough, a qualified abdominal surgeon!) but also a loving father. Had he been depicted as the traditional mad-scientist sort, trespassing on God’s domain and investigating into matters best left alone by Man, then we might have felt a little less sorry for him. But as shown, Beecher is completely innocent of all wrongdoing up until the time of his first pill ingestion, and despite the four homicides that he goes on to commit in horrible fashion, he has the viewer’s sympathy throughout. Such a shame that the filmmakers could not have devised a less pitiful conclusion for both him and his young daughter, instead of the tragic one that we are given. But other than this slight misstep in the film’s screenplay, intentional although it doubtless was, The Vampire remains a rock-solid entertainment, and one that might surprise newcomers, as it did me. It demonstrates very effectively that a vampire need not wear a cape and become a bat at night to be a memorable cinematic monster. The promotional poster for the film, back in 1957, featured a blurb that proclaimed “A new kind of killer to stalk the screen,” and for once, that blurb was not hyperbolic. The bloodsucker that poor Dr. Beecher here becomes was indeed a novel one, in a film that gives the viewer a scientific rationale for a classic horror trope…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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3 comments

  1. It looks like they went for The Wolfman theory– the monster is a genuinely innocent victim too, placed under a curse (or having a medication reaction in this case).

    • Sandy Ferber /

      LESSON TO BE LEARNED: Always check the label on your prescription meds before taking….

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    BTW: The awesome trailer for the new Blu-ray: https://youtu.be/x79Cu24MHjU

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