I watch Grave Of The Vampire every couple of years—it’s one of only a handful of movies I’ve watched over and over. Occasionally, you go back to movie that you loved as a kid, and realize how little you knew about filmmaking. When I revisited “Frogs,” one of the slew of 1970’s man vs. nature movies that started with Willard–I had to admit that when I first saw it, I was almost as green as the movie’s subject matter.
But in the case of Grave Of The Vampire, I discovered I knew a thing or two. The sets are very basic, the 70’s clothes & mile-wide ties are as distracting as Ms. Piggy at a mosque, & aside from the two leads (William Smith and Michael Pataki) and one or two other actors, the acting is pretty rudimentary.
But it was the most adult and realistic vampire tale my young eyes had ever seen–including the early 70’s Hammer Films–which also stirred in a healthy dose of nudity and sex. Films like: “The Satanic Rites Of Dracula” (a.k.a. “Dracula And His Vampire Brides.”) The dialogue in GOTV is better than any of the Hammer films–which were in its peer group when it was released. None of this is surprising in hindsight, because when I researched the film for this review, I learned that The Sopranos creator David Chase wrote the screenplay.
By the time I saw Grave Of The Vampire I’d immersed myself in the vampire legend. I’d read every horror comic containing vampires from the old Tomb Of Horror-type titles to Gene Colan’s Dracula, and Blade The Vampire Slayer. I wasn’t easily impressed. And then, as now, I was a purist. No “Dusk ‘Til Dawn” nonsense for me; where someone who dies from a vampire bite immediately turns into a vampire. “That’s the result of a zombie bite, Mr. Tarantino, and the presence of a half-naked Salma Hayek is the only thing that’s keeping me in my seat!”
GOTV managed to cover new ground and yet respect the vampire lore laid down by Bram Stoker, with a few small liberties. The story involves a rapist vampire (old habits die hard) who assaults a girl in a cemetery after draining her amorous boyfriend of blood. The detective investigating the rape/murder figures out that the perp is a vampire named Caleb Croft, & gets decapitated for his trouble.
Thirty minutes into the film, there have been three murders, a rape, and the birth of the world’s first vampire infant, which is achieved with some make-up placed on a real baby. Despite her doctor’s urging her to have an abortion (in a film released a year before Roe vs. Wade) the child ruins his mother’s health from the womb, and finishes her off by refusing her milk and suckling her blood instead. She sacrifices her youth and vitality one syringe at a time, and her undead child grows into William Smith.
This is where the vampire legend is adapted to the film’s specific needs. William Smith’s “James Eastman” keeps himself alive–not by drinking blood–but by eating raw meat. Having one human parent seems to have made him at least resistant to the sun’s effects–but that’s not addressed in the script. Eastman tracks his father to: “The colleges & universities where he finds the fresh young blood he craves” where dear old dad’s teaching a course on the occult. Like most horror films, Grave Of The Vampire unfortunately unravels rapidly at the end after a truly impressive start.
Michael Pataki, the titular vampire, is the reason the movie works. He had a long and varied career as a character actor with parts in The Andromeda Strain, Airport ’77, The Onion Field, with a brief appearance in Easy Rider as a mime. He also played a lot of TV detectives, and heavies, and a couple years after this role, he was upgraded to playing a descendant of Dracula himself in the truly awful “Dracula’s Dog.” Pataki brings the same reptilian menace to his role in GOTV that he brought to his performance as Nicoli Koloff (Dolph Lundgren’s handler) in Rocky IV.
Next to Lundgren, William Smith would seem small, but before steroid-enhanced villains were the norm, he had a palpable physicality and an intensity that routinely saw him cast as bikers and bodybuilders. He’s one of my all-time favorite B-Movie bad guys. Smith was a student of kung fu, and Bruce Lee reportedly offered him the co-lead in Enter The Dragon–which Smith lost when another movie he was filming went over schedule. He holds the distinctions of being in the final episode of Batman, the first episode of The Rockford Files, and he was The Marlboro Man in the last Marlboro commercial shown on television. He’s possibly best known as Falconetti from “Rich Man Poor Man” one of the first successful mini-series. For the younger readers, mini-series were the precursors of the “Netflix series binge” where longer productions were aired on the big three networks over successive nights.
Smith was also the bare-knuckled brawler who knocks Clint Eastwood from one side of town to the other in Any Which Way You Can. They punch each other through walls, windows, and the three-foot thick steel walls of a bank vault. Okay, I made that last one up, but you get the picture. Any Which Way You Can was the sequel to Every Which Way But Loose, but the over the top slugfest was so much fun, that I prefer the sequel to the original. And in my opinion, Clyde The Orangutan has never done better work.