Thursday, March 12, 2009
The Vampire is an eerie, unsettling 50s monster movie in which monstrous evil infiltrates suburbia. Like The Return of Dracula from a year later, it was directed by Paul Landres and written by Pat Fielder, and it's another film in which horror seems to emerge organically from the fears and tensions affecting late 50s American society. If the other Landres vampire film was all about the fear of immigration and integration, the desire to hold onto quintessentially American values, The Vampire takes as its subjects drug addiction, single parenthood and the increasing reliance on medications and the health industry. This is not, of course, to imply that either of these Landres/Fielder films could be called a "message movie," because they're not; they're grim, minimalist horror flicks in which creeping monsters tear apart the fabric of an ordinary American small town by infiltrating it with rot, evil and destruction. But they're also films that deal in deeper ways with the zeitgeist of their time.
Despite its title, The Vampire is more of a Jeckyll and Hyde tale than an actual vampire legend. It's the story of small town doctor Paul Beecher (John Beal), who accidentally ingests one of the strange experimental pills that a dying colleague gives him. The pills transform Beecher, initially without his knowledge, into a raving monstrosity, a killer who stalks through the streets of the town, biting his victims on the neck and, in the process, infecting them with a rare blood disease that destroys their body tissues. All Beecher knows is that he's becoming addicted to the pills, unable to let 24 hours go by without taking another, unleashing the monster inside him. The mechanics of the plot are somewhat shaky, and the script carelessly tosses around pseudo-scientific jargon as though it explains everything. Actually, though, it's never quite clear what these pills are doing to Beecher or where the disease that infects his victims comes from or why his colleague was ever working on such a thing in the first place.
Such things hardly matter. The film is rough and raw and unapologetically a B-movie, but its narrative sloppiness does little to dilute the intensity of its effect. Beal's performance is stunning. The doctor slowly unravels, growing more and more frazzled and unwound as the pills affect him more deeply and he comes to suspect what's happening to him. He's saddled with some truly ridiculous-looking monster makeup during his transformations, changing him into a slack-jawed, shuffling creature with boils on his face and claw-like hands, but his human performance is stark and emotionally devastating. Essentially, he's playing a man suffering from drug addiction: pacing, sweating, twitching nervously, increasingly caring little about his disheveled appearance, exploding with anger at those close to him and then tearfully regretting it later. He's a single father to a sweet young girl (Lydia Reed), and in his medical practice he cares for the entire town while not being too picky about billing for those who can't afford it. He's a good, kind man who is simply transformed by an accident, and who finds that he can no longer control his behavior. His addiction begins to control him instead, forcing him to continue taking the pills even after he suspects that something has gone terribly wrong, and even though each morning, when he wakes up groggy and disoriented, he learns that another corpse has been found somewhere in the town.
The Vampire is not quite as bracing or potent as Landres' masterful Return of Dracula, but it shares with the latter film an economical sensibility that draws terror and suspense from simple techniques. The film is often roughly edited and put together, with jarring cuts in the middle of dialogue scenes, but its horror sequences are fast, brutal and compelling. One of the best is a scene in which Beecher's pretty young nurse Carol (Coleen Gray) is walking home at night and hears footsteps behind her. It's the most basic horror sequence imaginable, one of the foundational building blocks of the genre, but it's so beautifully shot and lit, so precisely conceived, interspersed with haunting empty shots of the suburban streets, that it doesn't feel rote or cliché. Landres invests a great deal of tension into the frequent shots of the victims' necks, marked with those telltale dual bite marks that, by now, you'd think everyone would recognize for what they are, even if movie characters never seem to. The director also clearly loves brutal shocks, like the sudden cut to a staring, grinning skeleton after the local sheriff (Kenneth Tobey) opens the coffin of a freshly buried woman.
The Vampire is in many ways just a conventional B horror film, a sleazy, quickly made thriller with a monster who's really only terrifying as long as he's lurking in the shadows — the shots of him in stark daylight at the film's denouement are funnier than they are scary. At the same time, though, the film engages seriously and earnestly with issues of drug addiction and single parenthood, addressing the urge to self-destruction that causes otherwise respectable, decent people to undo the lives they've made for themselves. Beecher's performance is the key here, and the film's themes revolve around his desperation and despair and desire to overcome what he's become. This is a smart, energetic piece of schlock, a horror film that recognizes that true horror emanates from within us.