Grave of the Vampire
- Wide Release
- Director: John Hayes
- Written by: David Chase, John Hayes
- Running Time: 95 minutes
- Language: English
- MPAA Rating: PG - Parental Guidance Suggested
- Cast: William Smith, Michael Pataki, Kitty Vallacher, Diane Holden, Eric Mason, Lyn Peters, Lieux Dressler, Jay Scott, William Guhl, Carmen Argenziano, Abbi Henderson, Jay Adler, Margaret Fairchild, Lindus Guinness, Frank Whiteman, Inga Neilsen
Long before he busied himself with New Jersey mobsters with the Sopranos, author David Chase was interested in vampires, and worked to produce not only a novel about them, Still Life, but a later adapted screenplay as well, "Grave of the Vampire". The script, which marked Chase’s first ever-writing gig in the movies, proved surprisingly good, even quite innovative and meshed well with veteran filmmaker John Hayes’ bleak macho vision of a vampire movie. The notion of a vampire as a modern day thug and rapist-serial killer has been modified and cultivated in various cult-films like “Strange Things Happen At Sundown” and “Addicted to Murder” but this was definitely the launching pad for such ideas. As far as I know, the dark singular themes on display here had not been explored much (or ever) prior to this film.
Setting a murky tone early on, two young lovers, Paul (Jay Scott) and Leslie (Kitty Vallacher), skip out on a frat party and, under the cover of darkness, head on over to nearby cemetery for some ‘alone time’. Paul surprises Leslie by giving her a ring and asking for her hand in marriage and she rightly accepts. In an astonishing twist better suited to a Shakespearean tome, the couple’s happiness is replaced by sudden terror as a wild-eyed lunatic materializes from behind a grave and attacks them. He does away with Paul first, horse-shoeing him over a headstone. Leslie is next and he has other more devious plans for her. The spider and bug infested coffin that he just crawled out of acts as a staging ground for his brutal and savage rape of a traumatized Leslie. He leaves her alive, but just barely. Awakening in a hospital, she is told that she has something budding inside of her, something that isn’t alive. The doctor advises her to abort the blood-sucking parasite before it eventually kills her but, thinking the child is Paul’s, she relents, choosing instead to head off into the night with her hospital roommate and new BFF, Olga (Lieux Dressler) to birth the thing.
The police investigating the case are baffled, especially one Lieutenant Panzer (Eric Mason), who can’t understand why Paul’s body was drained completely of blood or why the unearthed casket housing a notorious serial killer/rapist named Caleb Croft was suddenly empty. Who stole the body and why? He is even more distressed when Leslie earlier identifies the long dead Croft in a series of police photos as the man who attacked her and Paul. Clearly out of his element to explain these strange events, he begins to look for answers in the supernatural, namely the notion that Croft is a centuries old vampire formerly named Charles Croydon. Seeming to confirm it, Leslie has the child, James, and, aside from its odd coloring, it seems normal enough. Oh wait, did I mention that it will not drink milk however when mom puts knife to breast, and begins carving, it has a field day. Leslie is quick to realize that it was Caleb’s baby she delivered, not Paul’s, and like Caleb, her child is a vampire. “You gave me life, now show me how to life,” and in keeping with that old Audioslave song, Leslie and Olga endeavour to give young James the most normalized existence possible, treating his difficulty, being a vampire, as any parent would treat a child with a shortcoming – by minimizing it to a minor talking point and constantly reinforcing, through custom, a sense of normalcy. Out the other side, twenty years later, James (William Smith), now a rather strapping young man, is glimpsed strolling a University Campus in search of a classroom… and vengeance.
In a voice-over narration, James, a half-human/half-vampire hybrid, unveils that his mother died a few years earlier, ravaged by a hard life - made harder by raising a vampire son - and that through due diligence, he has tracked his Pop to some American University where he is working as a teacher of the occult under the pseudonym Adrian Lockwood. For what he did to his mother, James has shown up at the school with the sole purpose of weeding out his father and, well, killing him. Enrolling in Lockwood’s course, James brings the noise right off the bat, insinuating to his stunned father in front of the class that he knows who (and what) he is. Soon a few others in the class get wise to Lockwood’s real identity; prompting the good teacher to become increasingly more unhinged as the chips begin to fall. After offing a local librarian, and an inquisitive student named Anita, Lockwood/Croft/Croydon is off to the races, bringing together some students (including James) at his house for an intended impromptu séance. Before the night is over, many students will lay dead or near dead (including the girl James is making googly eyes at - Anne) and father and son will face off in a battle to the death, ending with the revelation that as goes the father, there must also go the son. If you think my description sounds a little overripe, then just wait until you see a constipated looking William Smith squawking ‘get out of here’ a half dozen times in the final frame.
For sure “Grave of the Vampire” is a b-movie, but there’s a virility to the whole affair that promises to appeal to a certain sect of movie goers – most notably men. From Kitty Vallacher and her terrorized but strong willed victim to bad ass protective mother, to Michael Pataki’s Lecter-esque thug-vampire to William Smith’s hypogeous good guy revenge-seeker, this is the kind of film that would probably have given Sam Peckinpah a boner had he ever gotten around to watching it. The sometimes goofy tough-guy vernacular, reeking of David Chase, and misogynistic undertones, also reeking of David Chase, add up to a lot of puffed out chests, brutalized woman and at least one hard-hitting mano-a-mano scrap where two generations, a raging bull son and a slightly bewildered father, are pitted against each other. The notion that Chase adapted the screenplay from a novel he wrote titled Still Life has been refuted by some the last few years, suggesting that the book never existed and that the screenplay was a stand alone project. Who knows?
Before chewing the scenery in “Grave of the Vampire”, Michael Pataki got plenty of work as a steadfast character actor (and still does) appearing in such cult classics as “Little Cigars”, “The Return of Count Yorga”, “Five the Hard Way” and, most notably, “Easy Rider”. His work here is also juicy, taking dialogue that is at times rather choppy and making it his own. He is a monster fancying himself as some sort of messiah, regaling at the paltry humans in his midst. The scene with the librarian, for me, best articulates his utter contempt for humans. By contrast, his son, played by William Smith (2003’s “Zombiegeddon”), is the counter weight to his father’s unfettered evil. He might not be as refined, but there is a certain goodness in him, especially in the way he carries himself, bestowed upon him by his attentive mother. As much as I love seeing William Smith, I was a little disappointed though with his work in this film. Yes, he’s a good guy, but we really don’t get a sense of his cause – of his sense of duty, to eradicate his father for his mother. It’s almost as if Hayes was rushing through that part of the story and I’m wondering if it was because of the quick eleven day shooting schedule or because of Smith’s limited range as an actor. Smith can play the tough guy, no problem, something he has proven time and time again over the years, but as the emotionally flummoxed seeker of retribution, he doesn’t fare so well. Akin to watching Sarah Palin in an interview, Smith seems to have no sense of direction for his character, and spends much of his time stumbling around, always searching for the right tone. This is best expressed in the final scene that is so over-the-fucking-top bad, you’ll be cringing.
One last note, maybe it's just me, but this film feels like a precursor to Wesley Snipes' vampire-flick "Blade", right down to the day walking, half-breed notations, and the attentive mother thing. I'm seriously wondering if the originators of Blade somehow caught a late night screening of this film before they sat down to create their iconic comic-book character. Regarding the film's availability, I know that I purchased my copy through Mill Creek Entertainment so it's not necessarily a hard flick to acquire. The film is rather washed out looking, as if somebody had drained it of its blood which only seems to add to its creepy ambiance. However, for you hardcore types, I’ve read that Showtime Beyond actually has a fairly good print of the film and shows it on occasion.