Friday Fright: Grave of the Vampire (1972)

Written by David Chase (screenplay), John Hayes (screen treatment)
Based on novel The Still Life (uncredited) by David Chase
Directed by John Hayes
Starring William Smith, Michael Pataki, Lyn Peters, Diane Holden
Released October 13, 1972
RT 95 min.
Home Video Amazon Prime (streaming)
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)

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You discover all the time about famous actors, directors and writers who got their starts in the film industry making low-budget horror movies.  I ran across one this week, though, that really blew me away.  David Chase, the creator, showrunner and head writer of The Sopranos, wrote the screenplay for Grave of the Vampire (1972), which was made in 11 days with a budget of $50,000.  Wow!

I really liked the movie, but was struggling to determine why.  It certainly wasn’t due to the presentation; it must have been due to the story.  To learn after the fact that Chase was responsible explains everything.  He won three Emmy Awards for “Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series” for The Sopranos (and was nominated for three more) and was involved with other award-winning, quality television shows such as Northern Exposure and I’ll Fly Away.

You can see seeds of each of those shows in Grave of the Vampire, believe it or not.  It’s not just a standard 70s vampire exploitation film.  It’s a generation-spanning, family drama that happens to culminate in a battle between two vampires.  As I was watching it, I kept thinking, “I’d like to see this story made with some money.”  Of course, we’ve now seen similar things many times: supernatural soap operas like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood.

The supernatural soap opera this movie reminds me of, though, is Dark Shadows… a poor man’s Dark Shadows.  While the shots in Grave of the Vampire are often composed generically with stationary cameras like a 1960s afternoon serial, the sets have neither the detail nor the “texture” of those from Dark Shadows.  The music by Jaime Mendoza-Nava further evokes Dark Shadows.  A couple times, I could swear he was channeling Bob Cobert.

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The movie starts with some good atmosphere.  Fog envelops a crypt and then is sucked away to reveal a name: Croft.  However, it goes downhill fast.  A couple leaves a house party and drives to the cemetery so they can, of course, have sex in the back seat of his car.  Even though it’s poorly filmed, there are still some effective moments, such as when the vampire, Caleb Croft (Michael Pataki), peers in the car window at them while they’re getting it on.

Caleb pulls Paul (Jay Scott) out of the car, tosses him like a rag doll, and breaks his back on a gravestone, then attacks Leslie (Kitty Vallacher) and leaves her for dead.  She’s not, though; in fact, she’s pregnant.  Therefore, Vallacher’s role is credited as “The Unwilling Mother.”  I don’t know if it was Paul’s child that was infected or if Caleb raped Leslie; but, in either case, a vampire baby is born.

Well, we imagine…  $50,000 doesn’t apparently allow for the use of a baby… or even a doll.  The Unwilling Mother hugs a blanket and talks with her friend, Olga (Lieux Dressler) about how it won’t take milk.  When she accidentally cuts her finger and blood drips into the blanket, we see an extreme close-up of an adult mouth licking its chops.  It’s terribly cheap, but also terribly fun.  The Unwilling Mother cuts her chest so her vampire baby/blanket can drink more of her blood.

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In a quick series of scenes, we see the vampire baby grow-up, always standing in the shade, whether holding his mother’s hand in the park, or watching other kids play baseball from the bleachers.  Finally a grown man, James Eastman (William Smith) enrolls in classes that his father, Caleb Croft, calling himself, “Adrian Lockwood,” teaches at night.  This allows him to romance Anne Arthur (Lyn Peters), who coincidentally resembles Croft’s true (but dead) love, Sarah.

The history and relationships converge at a séance that Croft orchestrates to summon Sarah to inhabit Anne’s body, then concludes with an epic battle between father and son.  Well, “epic” within the budget.  There’s not a lot of it, but there is nevertheless some clever dialogue.  When Anne’s roommate, Anita (Diane Holden), begs Croft make her his vampire bride, he asks, “Don’t you think an eternity-long relationship would become boring?”

The action of the climax is again poorly staged, but creatively designed, if that makes any sense.  Taking place on the second story landing, there are railings over which to be thrown and stairs down which to fall.  But the most important thing is furniture placed within reaching distance so that vampire-killing weapons can be fashioned on the fly.  And you know that any movie ending with the words, “The End… Or Is It” always leaves you with a great cliffhanger.

Against all odds, I liked Grave of the Vampire.  I’m usually more superficial than this.  If a movie looks bad, I instantly discredit it.  But there’s some kind of movie magic going on here that rises from Chase’s screenplay.  If you sit back and watch it, I mean really watch it, there’s more to it than meets the eye.  Then, in that fog-enveloping place where your vision meets your imagination, wonderful things can happen.

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