CineSavant reaches back one year to pick up a notable low-key horror from the team of Levy-Gardner-Laven and good old United Artists. They have a respected actor, a workable concept and a horror screenplay from an unusual source for the 1950s . . . a (gasp) woman. More civilized monster movies just aren’t out there, although this one could have used a more creative title.
1957 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 75 min. / Street Date April 11, 2017 / 27.99
Starring: John Beal, Coleen Gray, Kenneth Tobey, Lydia Reed, Dabbs Greer, Herb Vigran, Paul Brinegar, Ann Staunton, James Griffith.
Cinematography: Jack MacKenzie
Film Editor: John Faure
Original Music: Gerald Fried
Written and story by Pat Fielder
Produced by Arthur Gardner, Arnold Laven, Jules V. Levy
Directed by Paul Landres
I long ago gave up keeping track of all the aberrant vampire movies that were produced after horror became a direct-to-video staple and finally a streaming staple. Today’s most common way around old-fashioned superstition-based vampire lore is to invent some all-encompassing worldview of a ‘vampire plague’ that crosses the line into zombie territory. That idea appears to have originated with Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, from 1954. Back in the old days, all a moviemaker had to do to create a slavering, blood-sucking monster was to arrange for a doctor to take the wrong pills. Even before Hammer Films’ Technicolor hemoglobin re-introduced the old themes to worldwide success in 1957-58, the few American horror shows of the 1950s (and there were indeed very few) tried to avoid association with moldy oldie pix by introducing some kind of scientific rationale.
I didn’t think much of The Vampire (1957) when I saw on TV as a teenager, but as an adult its special qualities are easier to appreciate. The Levy-Gardner-Laven producing team found financing and made a distribution deal with United Artists that kept them going through the 1950s, starting with some decent crime/noir pictures. 1952’s Without Warning! is an early serial killer epic, and Vice Squad and Down Three Dark Streets are not bad either. The L-G-L team then turned to the drive-in monster trend with a pair of sci-fi and horror double-bills that followed the marketing formula of American-International. The first picture The Monster that Challenged the World had impressive location filming and elaborate special effects. The Return of Dracula and this movie The Vampire are modest but respectable productions, definitely up to commercial standards. The last show of the four, 1958’s The Flame Barrier is a threadbare ‘Griffith Park’ spectacular, clearly filmed with whatever spare change was left over.
Arnold Laven’s directing career was gaining momentum. By 1956 he had moved on to TV work and The Rack over at MGM. He directed the mid-range The Monster that Challenged the World but skipped the others to shoot Slaughter on 10th Avenue over at Universal.
The Vampire was concocted in record time to fill the bottom half of the first double bill. Its script became the first original by Pat Fielder, an ambitious film student-turned office assistant that had already done a rewrite on The Monster that Challenged the World. A writing credit on a national release was an impressive feat in 1957, and Fielder continued to write or co-write all four of the L-G-L monster pix, which led to a long career writing for television. Such an opportunity is unheard of today — the biggest names in the business often have to fight for credit, after three or four writers have rewritten each other’s work. This is part of our nostalgia for a Hollywood we never personally witnessed, a time when the big studios were challenged by veritable storefront entrepreneurs, whose films could win national distribution too.
Writing a monster movie was not exactly a dream assignment in the Hollywood mainstream of the 1950s. Pat Fielder gave her pictures an everyday reality missing from other cheapies, where a two-fisted scientist defeats a menace and claims possession of the sexy female scientist or general’s daughter. Fielder’s The Return of Dracula was modeled after Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, to good effect. As in a Val Lewton picture, everyday lives are established before the fantastic element enters. One picture gives us mundane problems at an experimental Naval station, and another a house where a teenager is preparing for a distant relative to arrive. The Vampire centers on a widower doctor raising a small daughter on his own.
Family doctor Paul Beecher (John Beal) runs his practice out of his home, and makes house calls; his patients love and trust him, as do his young daughter Betsy (Lydia Reed) and his nurse-receptionist Carol Butler (Coleen Gray). Paul runs to the aid of a Doctor Campbell (Wood Romoff) doing research in the neighborhood, but Campbell dies of a heart attack after saying that he’s found ‘the answer’ and handing off a bottle of pills. Paul and police detective Buck Donnelley (Kenneth Tobey) find few clues, just lab specimens including a cage of bats. Paul’s old friend Dr. Will Beaumont (Dabbs Greer) arrives to set up Henry Winston (James Griffith), a researcher who will continue where Campbell left off. Betsy accidentally brings Paul the wrong pills when he complains of a headache, and Paul begins experiencing mysterious blackouts. Before he realizes what has happened, Paul is addicted to Campbell’s pills, which cause him to regress to a primitive state. Four terrible murders ensue before his secret is discovered.
The Vampire certainly covers all bases. A man turns into a Mr. Hyde-like fiend, and he also punctures jugular veins like a traditional vampire. But no supernatural curse is involved. As in Bigger than Life the culprit is a new drug, which anchors Pat Fielder’s story in the social realities of the day. The popular image of a drug addict in 1957 was a madman likely to rape and kill; TV shows like Dragnet preached an hysterical connection between hard drugs and deviant behavior, mayhem and communism.
What side effects might one expect from a pill derived from vampire bats? Paul Beecher pops one and immediately begins behaving like a dope fiend, sneaking out at night and lying about his activities to his loved ones. Paul is himself unaware that he’s murdered two patients and two fellow medical professionals. The ’50s potboilers (The Neanderthal Man, Monster on the Campus) use their savage regressions as a gimmick to motivate attacks on women suitable for poster exploitation. Fielder’s script stays rooted in the doctor’s problem. When the fog of denial lifts, Beecher is dissuaded from turning himself in for a mundane practical reason: his career as a doctor will be over. Paul sends his daughter away to relatives and prepares to kill himself with a straight shot of novocaine.
Few horror films had taken place in such a complacent, ordinary setting. A bicycle delivery boy rides on ordinary streets. Until the bodies begin piling up, Kenneth Tobey’s cop has little more on his mind than asking Carol out for a date. But we immediately know why Beecher’s patient Marion Wilkins (Ann Staunton) dies when he comes by to check on her, the morning after he takes his first pill — she recoils from his touch as from the Devil himself.
The show doesn’t suffer from the usual script deficiencies of modest ’50s horror pix. The mixup that makes Beecher an addict comes from his unwise handling of the mystery pills, not Betsy’s honest mistake. The weakest scenes are in Campbell’s lab, where nobody seems concerned that all the animals save for the vampire bats have died overnight. The descriptions of Campbell’s work are buried in vague technical terms like ‘capillary disintegration,’ which ought to sound like a pretty serious side effect. The new researcher played by James Griffith is a definite weak link. We’re told that he doesn’t talk much, but that only seems an excuse to avoid dialogue interaction.
As might be expected, the details of the nighttime vampiric attacks are not depicted on camera — this is a full year before Horror of Dracula showed a vampire bride baring her fangs and diving on a victim’s neck. The first attack happens entirely off screen, and the second cuts away as Paul lunges at an old woman on the street. Yet there are disturbing details. Paul rather convincingly shoves a fresh corpse into a furnace. Buck listens to the audio of one of the murders on a dictaphone machine. Kids likely jumped out of their seats in a scene where a corpse is exhumed. Nobody would have expected a full close-up, a sudden shock view of a shriveled skull with two staring eyeballs.
The story’s predictability is offset by sincere, convincing performances. Coleen Gray makes nine-to-fivery in a doctor’s waiting room look glamorous, especially walking to work daily in such a beautiful coat. Kenneth Tobey underplays nicely. Lydia Reed’s Betsy expresses low-key disappointment as her father sends her out of harm’s way, and out of the picture. Paul’s friendly relationships with Carol and his attractive patient Marion are without overtones of flirtation. We expect Buck the cop to be a womanizer, but his interaction with Carol also remains on a respectful level. I don’t think it is incorrect to say that this is the contribution of writer Pat Fielder, as the characters in all four pictures share a basic commitment to everyday decency. That’s not at all the norm in this genre, where we expect unmotivated sadism and a voyeuristic attitude toward women in distress.
John Beal’s monster man is also an exception, and not just because The Vampire avoids the usual exploitative attitude of monster thrillers. Our ancient NTSC TV monitors didn’t give us a good look at the Beechermonster, but in HD his makeup is not bad at all. Paul is still Paul, but with sagging eyes, a bulging lip, and a grotesque skin texture. Most of what we see looks like Beal’s face and not a mask. Did credited makeup man Don Roberson accomplish this? Beal’s eyes are so distorted that it seems possible that Lon Chaney-style methods were used to pull his eyelids out of shape. Both The Neanderthal Man and the Monster on the Campus are stunt performers wearing rigid masks, but Beal delivers a real monster performance. His bogeyman stalks and snarls like a wild beast, making us wonder how he can sneak up on anybody even in this sleepy town.
The only inconsistency is the origin of Beecher’s monstrousness. No dark Jekyll-Hyde psychological conflict appears to have been set free, unless we want to believe that all men are murderous monsters at heart. The scientific palaver keeps bringing up the subject of regression to a primitive state, but the evidence at hand simply tells us that Dr. Beecher has received a bad dose of vampire bat characteristics.
The plain-wrap production combines modest interior sets with conventional exterior work on city streets. Part of the ‘normalcy’ comes from seeing people arriving and departing from the same locations, two and three times each. In HD we can read street signs for Mentone Ave. and Woodbine Street, which places the location in the Palms neighborhood of West L.A.. The finale looks like the hills south in Culver City, where eucalyptus trees once stood. The cornered Beechermonster is just a dangerous madman, tough to subdue but not a ‘vampire that challenged the world.’ Stuntmen replace the actors for a couple of rough tumbles, although the final shot makes it look as if John Beal personally took a soaking in a drainage ditch.
After decades of horror pictures with embarrassingly fake bats, The Vampire gives us a cage-ful of authentic little furry mothers with leathery wings intact. In addition to writing the movie, Pat Fielder was still serving as a lowly production assistant. I can picture her personally driving over to the L.A. zoo to borrow a bunch of squeaky bats for an afternoon.
Rather than swipe the nice photo of Pat Fielder, I’ll link to it at the good review by W.B. Kelso at Micro Brewed Reviews. Practically everything we know about the Levy-Gardner-Laven horror films comes from timely interviews conducted by Tom Weaver in his books Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes and I Talked with a Zombie.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Vampire is a near flawless encoding of this B&W show, nicely matted to 1:78. MGM did the HD transfer in 2007. The sharp image allows us to read things like street signs and curb numbers; I might go snooping around looking for some of those street addresses, if all the single unit houses haven’t been razed for large apartment buildings.
The soundtrack is dominated by a characteristic 1950s Gerald Fried soundtrack, which pounds and shrieks in the same reliable way that enlivens two-score pictures by Paul Landres, Roger Corman, Joseph H. Lewis, Edward L. Cahn and others. Fried began film composing on the first work of Stanley Kubrick. Although he did all of Kubrick’s films up through Paths of Glory, the only one in this insistent, frantic style is The Killing. Fried’s music is like icing on the cake — despite the overall calm pace, The Vampire remains tense throughout.
The original poster art depicts a fanged Paul Beecher chomping down on Ann Staunton, something not visualized in the movie. The one video extra is an original trailer in good shape. After all the talk about non-traditional vampires, the trailer begins with animated graphics of Halloween-ready bats.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Original trailer
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 15, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson