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Kiss of the Vampire, The
If only newlyweds Gerald (Edward de Souza) and Marianne (Jennifer Daniel) had thought to bring a spare can of petrol in their motorcar. Having driven merrily to wherever it is they'd planned to honeymoon, this review would've been of an altogether different film. But alas, their fuel tank runs dry just outside a hopelessly remote Bavarian village. The local innkeepers have had but one paying guest in years: Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), sneered at as the local drunk and a man with seemingly nothing more to offer than vague, ominous warnings. There's little sign of life in the village, and certainly no one comes to the inn's pub anymore to share a pint.
Not that it's a terribly tall order, but Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) proves to be a far more inviting host, even dispatching an oxcart to fetch fuel for the couple from a distant town. It'll be some time before his man is said to return. By then, however, the ranks of Ravna's vampiric cult will have swollen, and neither Gerald nor Marianne have any chance of departing – at least not alive.
Nevermind that neither Christopher Lee nor Peter Cushing are anywhere to be found here; The Kiss of The Vampire easily ranks among the best of Hammer's many vampire films. And indeed much of that success is owed to the strength of its cast and the writing behind their characters.
Clifford Evans is remarkable as the grief-stricken Professor Zimmer, who's so consumed by his thirst for vengeance that he'd resort to measures far darker than the likes of Van Helsing could never consider. The opening sequence, with Zimmer interrupting a funeral under the light of day, is as masterfully executed as it is shocking and bloody – perhaps the best of any Hammer film. Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel are immediately arresting as charismatic newlyweds, proving to be such sympathetic leads because of the balance struck between being good-natured and savvy. Gerald's unyielding love for his wife proves problematic for the vampire cult; he may be unaware that Ravna's son (Barry Warren) is placing Marianne under his hypnotic thrall at one point, but it's apparent to him that she requires a helping hand. It's telling that the only way that Ravna can get his clutches on Marianne is with an excess of alcohol and inspired deception. An entire costume ball is thrown for no reason other than to trick Marianne into believing that she's following alongside her husband.
And while Noel Willman doesn't wield a presence as imposing or commanding as Lee's Dracula, he's still marvelous as the manipulative Dr. Ravna. There's somewhat of a sad, haunted quality to his face as Marianne finds herself trapped in his bedchamber, only for that slight frown to fade as his lips part and his fangs are exposed.
The Kiss of the Vampire is so endlessly engaging that it has no need to rely on the rhythms so often expected of a horror movie; only one set of fangs is bared in the first half of the film, and yet I never found my attention waning in the slightest. The questions surrounding the grief, loss, and isolation that pervade this small village are compelling. I can't help but love the dramatic irony of the tug-and-pull between good and evil when the likes of Gerald are wholly unaware of the scope of what they face. This is such a gorgeous film, from a once-grand inn that is now all but abandoned – complete with an umbrella and guestbook caked in inches of dust – to Ravna's gaudy yet gorgeous estate. No matter where my eye may happen to dart around the frame, there's invariably something striking to gawk at. Its inspired use of color is more brilliant still, especially throughout the grotesque costumed ball that would so be widely imitated in the years that followed.
In the first of his films for Hammer, director Don Sharp recognizes that being silent and still can prove more unnerving than any jump scare, such as when the cult eerily drops their charade upon capturing their quarry. I feel Marianne's terror as the inevitable leers menacingly at her from across the room. I share Gerald's panic as seemingly everyone in the village attempts to convince him that he arrived here alone, with no memory or evidence of his wife anywhere to be found. And the film culminates in a supernatural orgy of blood and violence that must be seen to be believed.
Atmospheric, unsettling, sensual, and defiantly unconventional, it's little wonder that The Kiss of the Vampire is so often revered as one of Hammer's best. And, following Universal's indifferent shrug of a Blu-ray release as part of their eight-film Hammer Horror Collection in 2016, Scream Factory has assembled a special edition befitting this suspenseful Gothic triumph. Highly Recommended.
The flipside of the case says that the interpositive has been newly-scanned in 4K; Scream Factory's website says it's a 2K scan. Whatever the case may be, their presentation of The Kiss of the Vampire is revelatory compared to what Universal slopped out on Blu-ray back in 2016:
|Scream Factory (1.85:1)
|Scream Factory (1.66:1)
|Scream Factory (1.85:1)
|Scream Factory (1.66:1)
|[click on any of these thumbnails to enlarge]
Universal's ancient relic of a presentation looks like it dates back to the DVD era, has been filtered within an inch of its life, and then wildly oversharpened to try and compensate. Unless you're watching on a particularly small display or from quite a long distance, it's pretty dire. For instance, expand the last of that long list of comparisons above to full-size, then look at Gerald's jacket – especially around the small portrait he's holding in his left hand. On the older Universal disc, that checkered design devolves into an indistinct smear, while the fine pattern remains wholly intact in Scream Factory's remaster.
But really, we're not talking about the subtle sort of differences where you have to zoom in and squint to appreciate the improvement. Scream Factory's presentation – or, well, presentations, plural – is immeasurably more filmic in appearance. Don't make the mistake of thinking the image here is softer; it just hasn't been artificially sharpened and is far better for it. Wear and speckling are kept reasonably in-check, and I'm thrilled with the definition and detail so often on display. I greatly prefer this color grade as well. There are so many shots that, if I didn't already know better, I might've assumed had originally been photographed in Technicolor. Stunning beyond words, and I'm not just talking about Jennifer Daniel here:
It's also very much worth noting that there are three distinct presentations of The Kiss of the Vampire on this BD-50 disc. Universal's initial release was limited to 1.85:1, and that's also the aspect ratio which Scream Factory's special edition provides by default. Listed among the extras is a separate presentation pillarboxed to 1.66:1, as The Kiss of the Vampire was more likely to have been screened throughout Europe. The primary downsides to this second presentation are the lack of lossless audio and a more modest bitrate. I didn't do an exhaustive comparison, but even though its average video bitrate is about ⅔rds that of its 1.85:1 counterpart, the AVC encode never showed any signs of strain throughout my skimming.
And the 1.66:1 version does, of course, expose a good bit more information on the top and bottom of the frame. Aside from the opening shot of the funeral procession, which is weighted more heavily towards the lower part of the screen, I can't say that I found the 1.85:1 presentation to ever really feel oppressively tight or awkwardly framed. And the third version...? That's something we'll talk about much further into this review and for good reason.
The short answer, though, is that what Scream Factory has delivered here is an exceptionally compelling upgrade, even for those of us who already shelled out for Universal's Hammer Horror collection on Blu-ray a few years back. Oh, and for anyone who's curious, the abrupt jump once Professor Zimmer sits down around the 1:17:10 mark remains in place, just as it was on the earlier Blu-ray edition. A few seconds of footage is reportedly missing as a result, though it's nothing ruinous.
As with Universal's previous Blu-ray release, the 1.85:1 presentation of The Kiss of the Vampire features a terrific lossless soundtrack in 24-bit, two-channel mono. It's a mild disappointment that the same can't be said for the 1.66:1 presentation, which is limited to DVD-quality Dolby Digital mono (192kbps). To whatever extent MP3s might be illustrative, I've recorded a series of comparisons:
Scream Factory (1.85:1)
Scream Factory (1.66:1)
Scream Factory (1.33:1)
I'm very pleased with what I'm hearing on the disc's lone DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The lossless audio is reasonably clean and clear throughout, with mild background noise audible but never to the point of distraction. James Bernard's score sounds marvelous, and I certainly can't say that I minded incessantly replaying an imprisoned Marianne frantically attempting an escape or the vampiric assault on Professor Zimmer in the graveyard to hear how well the 1.66:1 version's Dolby Digital audio fares by comparison. (Honestly, it's fine.) Every last syllable of dialogue can readily be discerned, free from any clipping or distortion. At no point did any aberrations – loud pops, dropouts, or anything else intrusive along those lines – catch my attention. Well done.
The 1.85:1 version of The Kiss of the Vampire also offers a set of English (SDH) subtitles – the only of the three presentations to do so. Each of the three versions is accompanied by its own unique audio commentary.
- Audio Commentary: Of The Kiss of the Vampire's three commentary tracks, the only one listed on the 'Setup' submenu is this relaxed, delightful conversation with actors Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel. Moderator Peter Irving asks the two of them quite a few questions, such as what originally drew them towards acting, if they'd ever considered working in America, what life was like as a performer in '60s British cinema, whether or not they have any great passion for horror, and the overall atmosphere on the set. But its most memorable moments are really just de Souza and Daniel being their ever-charming selves, quipping about the elements recurring throughout their brief times with Hammer, the camera taking care to avoid photographing the '10 year testing' sign on the rear of Gerald's motorcar, and bonding with Christopher Lee on the set of The Golden Compass as Hammer alums. And hey, there's even some behind-the-scenes magic about Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines as an added bonus.
- The Men Who Made Hammer: James Bernard (17 min.; HD): Little Shoppe of Horrors' Richard Klemensen celebrates The Kiss of the Vampire's composer in the first of the disc's two retrospectives. Klemensen takes care to explore what makes Bernard's complex scores so compelling, including the subtle way in which he'd incorporate the title of each film into the music. Quite a bit of Bernard's work for Hammer is discussed, including the ways in which he rescued The Devil Rides Out and The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires. As for The Kiss of the Vampire in particular, it's noted that Bernard wrote the vampire concerto and a series of waltzes as well. Among the other highlights are his Academy Award for co-writing Seven Days to Noon's story, Klemensen and Bernard's longstanding friendship, soundtrack re-releases of his work, his life post-Hammer, and what a mainstay of horror conventions he was until his passing in 2001.
- The Men Who Made Hammer: Bernard Robinson (20 min.; HD): Admiration for Bernard Robinson's rarely rivaled skill as a production designer is expressed throughout the disc's many extras, and rightly so. Richard Klemensen delves into Robinson's gifts for making the most of what room and resources he had available and then repurposing it for the following film. Particular attention is directed towards Robinson's remarkable work on Brides of Dracula and The Phantom of the Opera's waterlogged lair. The exceptionally well-dressed sets of The Kiss of the Vampire are deservedly marveled at here, along with noting that the backlot was at its most extensive and that the gorgeous flooring is actually shellacked paper. Also discussed are Robinson's versatility, his skill at making sets appear far larger than they actually were, what a chaotic period it was for so many of these British studios, and his untimely passing immediately after being asked to design Lust for a Vampire.
- The Kiss of the Vampire – 1.66:1 Version (88 min.; HD): As mentioned in the 'Video' part of this review, the 1.66:1 presentation of the film is listed along with the rest of the bonus features. And this version of The Kiss of the Vampire has an extra in its own right: my favorite of the disc's three commentaries, this time with Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr. Of particular interest are the ways in which they compare and contrast the finished film with earlier drafts – not just of The Kiss of the Vampire's screenplay but of elements originally written for The Brides of Dracula. Nasr and Haberman draw parallels to the likes of The Black Cat, The Lady Vanishes, and The Fearless Vampire Killers. Among countless other highlights are why this was such a key, transitional film for Hammer, the mindset of British censors at the time, contrasting Don Sharp's interests as a filmmaker with those of Terence Fisher, and ultimately unused ideas explored for the climactic bat siege – including some William Castle-style ballyhoo! An essential listen.
- Radio Spot (1 min.): "Listen! This is the eerie, ghastly, sinister sound of giant vampire bats in flight, summoned from the caves of perpetual night to destroy...to kill...to avenge!" This terrific spot runs right at a full minute in length.
- Kiss of Evil – TV Version (93 min.; SD): NBC's Standards and Practices apparently weren't all that keen on fangs or blood back in 1966, so damned near everything that'd make The Kiss of the Vampire recognizable as a vampire film – including its title! – was carved out. Not only did that leave the movie somewhat incomprehensible, but there's no longer even a climax, really! And to pad out the runtime, new material was written and shot by persons unknown. These stapled-on sequences revolve around a father who wants nothing to do with Ravna and his ilk, his wife who sews the cult's robes, and a lovely daughter merrily dancing her way into the sinister society's crosshairs.
The Universal vault fire in 2008 destroyed the original broadcast master for Kiss of Evil, and no film elements of the '66 additions appear to have survived these many decades either. The only remaining option for Scream Factory was a fan recording from when the movie aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, complete with a blurred-out bug in the lower-right of the screen at times. Though not exactly in the same league as the presentations elsewhere on this disc, it's about the best we could hope for:
Nathaniel Thompson, who provided Scream Factory with his VHS recording, also delivers a commentary track over it with Troy Howarth. The two of them discuss how disastrous this edit of the film is, such as how Ravna and his flock now come across as a sex cult as well as the cringingly outmoded gender politics of the Otto-'n-Family additions. Howarth and Thompson also discuss other films severely cut or featuring extensive reshoots for television, defending Hammer films wrongly dismissed as camp, and charting the peaks and valleys of the studio's Dracula and Frankenstein cycles. And without their commentary, I'm sure I would've missed that Peter Cushing technically makes an appearance, thanks to a brief insert swiped from The Evil of Frankenstein.
- Kiss of Evil – Addditional Scenes from 1966 NBC Broadcast (17 min.; SD): If you're not in the mood to watch Kiss of Evil in its entirety, every sequence with the bolted-on additions of Otto, Rosa, aand Theresa are served up in this reel. There's also context from surrounding footage to help give a sense of where all this had been spliced in as well.
- Kiss of Evil – TV Trailer (2 min.; SD): Presented more like a theatrical trailer than a garden-variety TV spot, this promo runs right at a minute long and is followed by a sizeable list of contributor credits.
The Kiss of the Vampire comes packaged in a slipcover with new artwork by Mark Maddox. Not only is the interior cover reversible, but the entirety of its alternate design is oriented around original theatrical poster art, including a different spine and photo selections. That extra thought and consideration are always appreciated.
The Final Word
Easily ranking among Hammer's greatest vampire films, The Kiss of the Vampire has at long last been lavished with the special edition Blu-ray release it deserves. Whereas Universal's 2016 edition was bare-bones and saddled with a substandard transfer, Scream Factory has assembled three different presentations of the film, a slew of audio commentaries, and a good many other compelling extras. Very Highly Recommended.