Dear Reader, even though I’m someone who is frequently accused of being a hateful contrarian, there is a lot—really an embarrassing amount—of love in my heart. Sometimes this love might seem misguided, as in the case of my obsession with low budget (admittedly sometimes terrible) vampire films. This Halloween season, I’ve decided to bring that affection out into the light and pen a series of love letters to them for Diabolique, beginning with an incredible classic that seems to have slipped under the radar for a lot of genre film fans: Grave of the Vampire (1972). If you have yet to see this film, it’s in the public domain and is easy to track down and there will be a lot of spoilers below, because I have very limited self-control when I allow the love to come bursting forth.
There are a lot of reasons that this film is simply perfection—which I will expand upon shortly—but here are the top five reasons for those of you in a hurry and with no tolerance for my rambling tone and Kantian sentence structure (or for anyone who wants to learn why they should watch the film while avoiding the spoilers to come):
- Michael Pataki, one of the greatest humans to have ever lived, plays the primary antagonist, one undead serial killer Caleb Croft. Anytime Pataki graces you with his presence, it should be treated as a gift.
- Caleb Croft does not fuck around. He’s a rare example of a vampire antagonist who is overtly sadistic and is utterly stripped of any romanticism or desire for seduction: he snaps spines for the fun of it, frequently maims his victims before draining their blood, and actually rapes a main female character—an act rarely depicted in vampire films. I’m not really trying to celebrate rape in the first paragraph of this essay, more the fact that director John Hayes was willing to go beyond—far, far beyond—tired vampire cliches. While films like Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), and Blacula (1972) were similarly attempting to break out of a mold far past its expiration date, none of them dared to actually become exploitation films. Hayes seemingly watched those other films, cocked an eyebrow, and said, “Hold my beer.”
- If there is anyone I love in this world more than Michael Pataki, it’s the stupidly prolific but divinely wonderful William Smith. He might have a nondescript name, but the man is an actual legend. Seriously, you will die before you manage to see all of his films, though it is worthy, worthy goal (and possibly a challenge I just quietly made to myself). Usually know for action, adventure, and crime films like Chrome and Hot Leather (1971), The Last American Hero (1973), Boss Nigger (1975), Any Which Way You Can (1980), Red Dawn (1984), and Maniac Cop (1988), along with about 400 more, this is an unusual role for Smith. Through some bizarre and sweet twist of fate, he’s the film’s brooding, Byronic hero, James.
- James is basically a prototype for the comic book vampire hunter Blade, who wouldn’t debut until a year later in a 1973 issue of Tomb of Dracula; born half-human, half-vampire, James can walk in the sunlight, but must feed on blood (and, so the movie gamely tries to suggest, very rare animal meat). Like Blade, James spend a lot of the time proving that, indeed, some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill. (Spoiler alert: there are no scenes of Michael Pataki ice skating, much to my chagrin.)
I first saw Grave of the Vampire almost a decade ago, and it’s one of those films where I can remember, in vivid detail, how I felt watching it for the first time. Skepticism quickly gave way to disbelief. The film opens with a young couple, Leslie (Kitty Vallacher) and Paul (Jay Scott), leaving a frat house that has a banner over the door indicating it’s around the year 1940. They drive to a fog-drenched cemetery absolutely soaked in gothic atmosphere. Though they appear to be normal, conventional young adults in every sense of the phrase, it’s strongly implied that the first time they had sex was in this particular cemetery, which is also where Paul proposes to Leslie. I’m not always one for romance but: #relationshipgoals.
Unfortunately, just as they go to celebrate this momentous occasion by having sex in the car, Caleb Croft rises from his nearby tomb, sneaks up on the young lovers, and rips the door clean off Paul’s beautiful car. He breaks Paul’s spine over a tombstone before biting his neck and bleeding him dry. Then he drags Leslie into an open grave and rapes her; the implication is that she has not been bitten, but intentionally just assaulted. Though this occurs offscreen, it’s surprisingly brutal. This leads to a pregnancy that Leslie is determined not to terminate—because she believes the child to be Paul’s—despite her 1940s doctor insisting that she have an abortion because “What’s growing inside of you isn’t alive—when it leaves your womb, it’ll be dead. […] It isn’t a human being, it’s a parasite!”
When the child, James, is born, it is clear that he is her mysterious assailant’s son and the grey, ashen child will only feed on Leslie’s blood, not her breast milk—she discovers this by accidentally cutting herself and spilling blood right onto the baby’s mouth. Hell of a coincidence. It seems that little James’ father is Caleb Croft; based on a photo Leslie picks out of a police lineup, a hapless police detective (Ernesto Macias) reveals Croft was a serial killer and rapist who was believed to be dead. Undead, as it turns out, though I have yet to work out if Paul is the baby’s biological father, and the fetus was merely infused and partially changed by vampire blood, or if the film is actually suggesting that Croft shot a load of undead semen into Leslie that resulted in a full-term pregnancy. The only real clue is from the film’s genius tagline: “Father and son—related by BLOOD! ANYONE’S BLOOD!”
Aside from blood, violence, and rape, Croft’s primary motivation is to keep his identity as a vampire a secret. For example, when the detective is quick to suspect a vampire might be responsible, he has his head smashed under the lid of Croft’s stone tomb before Croft drains him of his blood. Later it’s revealed that Croft has changed names, occupations, and locations over the centuries, but he has been raising hell since at least the 17th century.
Keep in mind that most of this happens before the 35 minute mark, when the film quite suddenly, abruptly jumps to the grown James on Croft’s trail sometime in the early ‘70s and we are finally—FINALLY—able to feast our eyes on William Smith and much more Pataki. In a quick voice over narration, James reveals that Leslie died young and his life’s mission has been to hunt Croft. So far, he has followed him to a university, where Croft, alias Lockwood, is teaching a wildly popular night class on—you guessed it—superstition, myth, and the occult.
I’m usually loathe to include so much plot in an essay, but I’m not sure how else to convey just how batshit insane Grave of the Vampire actually is. The remaining 90 minutes gradually leads to an inevitable confrontation between father and son that is majestic to behold, and includes a subplot about a beautiful woman (Lyn Peters) who begins a love affair with James, while she also reminds a jealous Croft of his long-dead vampire bride. Grave of the Vampire is based on The Still Life, an early novel by David Chase (who also wrote the script), the same David Chase who would rise to fame with his writing for The Sopranos (!).
A brief aside: You can’t entirely trust my assessment of any of these lower budget vampire films, because I love them without reservation and with an indecent amount of enthusiasm. As wonderful as Grave of the Vampire is, I can’t pretend that the writing is the film’s strongest element, though there are plenty of good ideas peppered throughout the odd script. As with many of the films that I write about, I find it more interesting to write and think about because of its faults. And these imperfections make it more, not less, of a gem; where else would you get lines of dialogue like, “I’ve researched every written word on the black arts”? This comes out of the mouth of a college student (Diane Holden), who has somehow figured out her professor is a vampire and is attempting to seduce him so she can have eternal life at his side, because of course she’s in love with him too. I’m sorry, but in her 30 odd years on earth, how would she find the time to read every written word on the occult? Are those words in English or in all of recorded history? And this is before the internet.
Yes, I am aware that my obsessive compulsive tendencies are out of control sometimes, but it’s actually easy to let those more ridiculous elements go because of the glory of Pataki. The violence and sadism perpetrated by Croft throughout the film is frequently shocking—maybe not by the standards of an ‘80s gore film, but anyone expecting a run of the mill ‘70s vampire flick is in for a shock. I’m not going to ruin all his acts of cruelty, suffice to say that there are some genuinely chilling sequences—such as one incredibly eerie scene where he attacks a woman in a dark basement. Director John Hayes had a strange career mixing exploitation and horror in films like The Cut-Throats (1969) and Garden of the Dead (1972); I’m sure most of you aren’t familiar with him, as he seems to be fairly forgotten, but it’s no surprise that he has left us with a nasty, mean-spirited, unexpected, and surprisingly refreshing vampire film.
I don’t think I even need to say that Pataki is excellent as the evil Croft/Croydon/Lockwood and practically carries the film. He rises above his often ludicrous or mundane dialogue and has a bit in common with Robert Quarry’s Count Yorga (Pataki actually appeared in The Return of Count Yorga) and is suave, intelligent, and sophisticated. On the other hand, he’s also a serial killer and rapist, eschewing most vampires’ sole dependence on blood for some extra curricular violence. All of his scenes have something incredible about them, whether he’s snapping the neck of a catty librarian refusing to lend him a reference book after hours, or leading a seance and scaring the bejeezus out of his students. For example, his first real dialogue in the film is a speech to his class that can only be described as a Nietzschean diatribe about human fear. He actually calls humans “pathetic, frightened little creatures wandering in a cruel and hostile world” and waxes poetic about how death is very beautiful.
In the final act of the film, he lures his students to his ornate house (mansion?) for a seance, slips into a Dracula cape for no apparent reason, sacrifices the lot of them, and becomes vampire overlord of the world with William Smith ruling at his side. And then, Reader, I married him.
OK, I didn’t, and that’s not remotely how the film ends after the seance bit, but I guess you’re just going to have to see it for yourself. It really is an underrated wonder and a perfect film for the Halloween season, especially if you’re tired of the tried and true vampire formula—or if you typically find vampires a bit too, er, flouncy.
Pro-tip: If you’re really stressed out, just listen to Pataki’s speech at the hour and 15 minute mark where he hypnotizes his students at the beginning of the seance. If that doesn’t lull you into a state of semi-aroused relaxation, I don’t know what will. (Bonus points if your name is Sarah.)