Monday, January 22, 2018

"No Tricks, No Goober Dust" - Grave of the Vampire (1972)

We do not review many vampire films here at Senseless Cinema, in part because there are few that reach the cinematic heights of the classics we cover. However, some vampire films do display cinematic excellence, and at the forefront of that group is 1972's Grave of the Vampire, starring the reliable Michael Pataki of Graduation Day (1981) fame.

On IMDB, soulexpress writes, "a lame script, horrendous acting, cut-rate sets, ludicrous props, humdrum camera work, a grating (though occasionally effective) score, machete- styled editing, riotously bad sound effects, and one of the most predictable "surprise" endings I've ever seen." Reviewer mark.waltz, perhaps unfairly, writes that the film gave him "the urge to burn the four film DVD it is on to prevent this from getting into further hands." Reviewer GL84 writes that the film is "hindered by the inane and wholly illogical romance subplot that doesn't do the film any favors at all."

Of course, all these opinions are entirely misguided. We must recount the narrative of the film in order to demonstrate its classic qualities.

The film begins, appropriately for a film named Grave of the Vampire, in a foggy graveyard as the camera circumnavigates a tomb labeled with the family name Croft. The soundtrack is dominated by a heartbeat, implying something in the tomb is alive.

Before we find out what might be living in the tomb, the film cuts to the front of what appears to be a college fraternity house, as some kind of ritual is beginning. “Lola Blossom’s gonna do her dance,” screams a fraternity brother. “And we’ve got all the freshmen dressed up like dogs so they can crawl on their knees and bark at her.”

Such fraternity shenanigans sound nothing but inviting, but a college student named Paul leaves the party with his girlfriend Leslie, driving off in an automobile from the 1930s.

The lovers’ destination, of course, is the cemetery, where they immediately become amorous on a tombstone. The girl says, “I don’t think I’ll ever be frightened of graveyards. It’s special for us.”

Meanwhile, a coffin lid in the Croft tomb opens to reveal character actor Michael Pataki with crepe paper-like skin, as well as tarantulas and toads crawling on his body.

Paul asks Leslie to marry him, and she gives him the traditional response: “Yes, Paul, anytime you want me to.” Such a response is perfectly understandable, as the balding, Argyle-sweater- and bow tie-clad Paul is clearly a catch.

Paul and Leslie’s happiness is interrupted, however, due to Mr. Pataki’s gradual (some might say “glacial”) rise from his coffin. When Paul and Leslie climb into the back seat of his car to celebrate their engagement, Mr. Pataki rips off the door, lifts Paul over his head, and slams the unfortunate middle-aged student down onto a tombstone, killing him.

Leslie then witnesses the vampiric Mr. Pataki sucking blood from her former fiancĂ©’s neck. When she tries to run, the vampire drags her into a freshly dug grave nearby.

Thus begins the shocking prologue to Grave of the Vampire, cleverly showing us both a grave and a vampire in the first 15 minutes of the film.

Director John Hayes then cuts to a police investigation in which, cleverly subverting the standard plot of a vampire film, the police detective on the case, Lieutenant Panzer, has already deduced that Paul’s murder was committed by a vampire. He questions Leslie in the hospital, accompanied by her doctor, who resembles Pat McCormick. Lieutenant Panzer shows Leslie pictures of dozens of suspected vampires that he keeps in his jacket pocket. Leslie has a fearful reaction to one of the photos, that of Caleb Croft, the man whose corpse is missing from the tomb.

After Leslie’s hospital roommate Olga reveals that her husband “died from pills,” the Pat McCormickesque doctor reveals to Leslie that she is pregnant. She is happy that she will have Paul’s baby, but the doctor immediately suggests she have an abortion. “What’s growing inside of you isn’t alive,” he explains, though the evidence for this baffling condition is left unsaid.

Leslie is not convinced by the doctor’s vague assertion. She reasons that the doctor doesn’t know what he is doing, despite the fact that he has been her doctor since childhood. “All those old people in the waiting room,” she says. “None of them ever got better.” Based on this sound foundation of reasoning, Leslie abandons medical science and storms off with her hospital roommate Olga.

Fortunately for Leslie, she has somewhere to go: an old, fog-shrouded summer home owned by her deceased parents. Surely this is a safer place to give birth to her questionably human baby than Pat McCormick’s hospital.

The filmmakers then tie up what might be considered a loose end, as Michal Pataki’s vampire kills Lieutenant Panzer, the only man to have discovered the vampire’s secret.

Leslie immediately gives birth to a baby boy, with Olga serving as midwife. “Why is he so gray?” Leslie asks.

Now it is time for Olga, despite her husband’s death via pills, to beg Leslie to bring the baby to a doctor. Leslie refuses and insists on attempting to breast feed the newborn one more time.

Fatefully, as Leslie holds the infant to her breast, she also reaches out toward her traditional fruit table that holds a bowl of apples and oranges as well as a knife. Her finger touches the knife gently and begins to bleed. It is through this means—and a disturbing image of blood drops on an infant’s mouth—that Leslie discovers the baby’s true nature and parentage.

Naturally, Leslie slices open her flesh to feed the baby while singing a fetching rendition of the lullaby “All the Pretty Little Horses.”

The film then moves forward in time to Leslie’s death. Her adult son sits at her open casket, helpfully explaining the plot of the film’s remainder through voice-over. “I came to hate Caleb Croft for creating me in his image, and for using my mother as a spawning ground for his evil. I’m determined to destroy him.”

Prolific actor William Smith plays the adult son, James Eastman, who tracks his fugitive father from college to college, where the older vampire finds continuous employment teaching night classes in the occult. James finds a seat on the first night of one of his father’s classes, but Mr. Pataki is late, preoccupied with his pursuit and murder by broken bottle of a middle aged prostitute.

When he reaches his classroom, Mr. Pataki reveals he is using the pseudonym of Professor Adrian Lockwood by writing his name on the chalkboard. However, the vampire commits the familiar mistake of a rookie teacher by not leaving enough room for his full name and compressing the last few letters. (If Lieutenant Panzer were still alive, he would undoubtedly have seen through Mr. Pataki’s false identity immediately.)

Mr. Pataki’s character reveals himself to be a racist as well as a vampire when he begins his lecture by blowing a handful of chalk dust into the air. “It’s called goober dust by the older blacks of the Deep South. Sprinkle it around your enemy’s bed at night and he will die in his sleep.”

“Can it really kill? No. Not here with automobiles and electric lights. We could never believe such a thing. But strip away the lights, the automobiles, the antibiotics that keep us one step ahead of death, and we are left with pathetic, frightened little creatures wandering in a cruel and hostile world.”

After calling death a “chief brick” for unexplained reasons, Mr. Pataki avers that death is very beautiful. Oddly, none of his students ask if this information will be on the next exam.

As the class progresses, James brings up the subject of vampires, then lectures his fellow students about Charles Croydon, a 17th century Englishman who, with his wife, practiced vampirism. Both James and his fellow student Anita have read that Charles Croydon and Caleb Croft, the murderer and rapist, are one and the same.

Before Mr. Pataki can regain control of his introductory lecture, the bell rings, bringing the 10-minute class to an end.

Despite the fact that his students seem to be aware of his identity as a vampire, Mr. Pataki seduces another female student with the tried and true pick-up line, “At first you reminded me of my dead wife Sara, but then I went beyond that.”

He adds, “Forgive me if I seem to be compelling. That quality is inspired by you.”

The woman responds, “I feel very helpless at this moment,” as would anyone subjected to the charms of a vampiric Michael Pataki.

“You are free to leave,” says Mr. Pataki. “No tricks. No goober dust.”

The same night, a librarian dressed in a baggy nightgown attempts to seduce Mr. Pataki when he searches for a book about Charles Croydon. As the library closes, the woman lets down her hair and states that she was once a photographer’s model. However, Mr. Pataki is upset when she does not allow him to take the book from the library. “You were using me!” he declares, though there is no evidence whatsoever for his statement.

He grabs her throat and gives her a vampire glare before  moving in for the kill.

Later, James and his fellow middle-aged student Anita attend a college party. She asks him to dance. He replies, “I’d like to start by just sitting down.”

“Agreed, on one condition,” says Anita. “You stand right here for one minute and let me do all the work.” She dances around him.

Then she tells him, “I’d swear you were a vampire if I hadn’t seen you walking around in the sunlight.” She adds, “You’re unobtainable.”

At the end of the night, James finds himself in his own apartment with another student, Anne. She seduces him with the curious double entendre, “Oh, I don’t feel like stuffing myself with any damn spaghetti.”

After they make love, James nearly bites his lover’s throat, but he stops himself.

The film’s next twist occurs in the early morning, as Mr. Pataki casually wanders into Anita’s apartment, looking for the other student, Anne. Anita, however, has a request: “I want you to make me a vampire. Slowly mix my blood with yours until one night while I’m bathing in the light of the full moon, the black magic will take place, and I will come to you as your bride, and serve you for all eternity.”

He replies, “The relationship would become a bit stale, don’t you think.” Then he slashes her throat with a kitchen knife in order to deprive her of her vampiric fantasy.

Anne returns to her apartment after making love to James and strips in silhouette. Subversively, the film presents Anne as an object of desire, despite her advanced age and graying temples. Anne steps into a shower that is already running and begins to wash her hair—that is, until she sees Anita’s clothed body next to her in the shower, a sight she apparently did not notice as she entered the small shower stall.

In the next scene, Anne relaxes in a garden drinking tea. Her friend points out what to some viewers might seem obvious: “God, if I found Anita like that, I’d be in a strait-jacket. But here you sit, sweet as cream, ready for tonight’s seance.”

Then the nameless friend delivers perhaps the film’s most profound line: “Cake is so delicious. I can’t believe dead people haven’t found a way to eat it.”

For the seance, Mr. Pataki shows up in his best Christopher Lee/Robert Quarry finery.

“You make a groovy medium, Professor,” says one of the students who will be participating in the seance, but Mr. Pataki indicates that Anne will serve as medium.

Belying his statement, Mr. Pataki takes control of the seance, telling everybody to “relax,” which he somehow converts into a three-syllable word. He quickly reveals the purpose of the ceremony by calling to his dead wife Sara: “Anne is here with us all. Take her, Sara. Your mind in her body, with me through all eternity.”

Somehow, James takes the opportunity to call the recently murdered Anita into Anne’s body. James wants Anita to tell the truth about her own murder at the hands of Croydon/Croft/Lockwood/Pataki.

“Professor Lockwood is the vampire,” Anita (or possibly Anne, or maybe Sara) tells the students, prompted by James. Then Anne (or possibly Sara, or maybe Anita) crosses her eyes and faints.

While James carries Anne upstairs, ignoring his burning quest for revenge to initiate another bout of lovemaking, Mr. Pataki confronts the rest of the class. One of the students summarizes their situation: “I think either you’re a vampire, or Anne is a marvelous actress and voice impressionist.” (It must be stated that Anne’s voice did not change noticeably during her apparent possession.)

After Mr. Pataki breaks one student’s neck, another student fires a pistol, but the bullets pass right through Mr. Pataki, who reveals his vampire teeth. He kills the rest of the students, and then is finally confronted by his son James.

A physical fight ensues, with James tossing Mr. Pataki across the room, followed by Mr. Pataki using a flag stand to knock James into the fireplace.

The fight moves upstairs, and causes Anne to faint a second time.

“Who are you?” asks Mr. Pataki.

“I’m your son!” replies James. “Your son, conceived in a grave!”

After several more minutes of fighting, James manages to stake his father, whose crepe paper skin returns.

James then looks at his father’s body and appears to have regrets about murdering him.

“James, what’s the matter?” Anne asks.

“Get away from me, Anne,” he groans. In the surprise ending, his teeth become fangs.

Director John Hayes--prolific filmmaker of exploitation movies including Dream No Evil (1970), Garden of the Dead (1972), and Jailbait Babysitter (1977)--chose an excellent time for his evocative treatise on modern vampirism. Count Yorga, Vampire had been released in 1970, followed by its sequel The Return of Count Yorga in 1971. The time was right for Grave of the Vampire, and Mr. Hayes delivered, particularly with his casting of Michael Pataki as the vampire, an actor nearly as charismatic as Count Yorga's Robert Quarry himself.

While the primary inspiration for Grave of the Vampire was probably the success of the Count Yorga films, it is clear the filmmakers also took inspiration from the classic Universal monster movies as well as Night of the Living Dead (1968). The fog-shrouded crypt and the confrontation in the graveyard reflect both the classical and the modern, as does the combination of the romantic subplot of Caleb Croft's lost wife with graphic images of injection and a newborn drinking blood. The clever mixture of the old and the new is even part of the sound design in the graveyard scene, as we hear the vampire's heartbeat coming from seemingly nowhere, hauntingly reminiscent of the ultrasound technology used to hear a fetal heartbeat, a technology that was becoming widespread in American hospitals in the 1970s.

In the end, it all comes down to the fact that Grave of the Vampire begins with a grave and ends with a vampire. What more could we ask from filmmakers in the early 1970s?