Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bringing the Macabre to Suburbia :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Paul Landres' The Vampire (1957)

After a somewhat calamitous chain of events, a small town doctor (Beal) mistakenly pops the wrong pills while trying to fight off a migraine; pills made by a kooky scientist from a blood extract of vampire bats (-- he typed ominously). After, his patients and neighbors start dying under some very bizarre circumstances when the sun goes down (-- he typed ominously, again), with two small puncture wounds on the neck being the only clue linking these victims. And during this diabolical fiend's ever-spreading reign of terror there's a pretty nurse to be stalked (Gray), a dotty doubtful psychiatrist (Greer) who can't see the psycho for the psychosis, and a square-jawed detective (Tobey) trying to put it all together before any more bodies turn up. All the while, the doctor slowly realizes what he has become and who is really responsible for this mounting body count...

Initially mustering together in 1943 as part of the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Corps., Jules Levy, Arthur Gardner and Arnold Laven started kicking around the idea of forming their own motion picture company once the war was over. It took nearly seven years of collective work as script supervisors, assistant directors, and production managers at other studios before the trio finally made good on that oath with the B-Noir thriller / police procedural, Without Warning (1952), where a jilted husband homicidal-ly takes out his repressed anger on a succession of lookalikes of his unfaithful wife. And though the Levy-Gardner-Laven label really left their mark with a series of westerns (The Scalphunters, Sam Whiskey) and episodic television (The Riflemen, The Big Valley) in the 1960s, before backing John Wayne (McQ, Brannigan) and Burt Reynolds (White Lightning, Gator) in the 1970s, after a couple of more crime capers the trio unleashed a quartet of creature features as the 1950s closed out for their parent company, United Artists. 

Pat Fielder, meantime, was a recent graduate of UCLA's theater department, unemployed, and working on hammering out a stage play, who stumbled into an opportunity of a lifetime when she agreed to fill in as a temporary secretary for L-G-L productions (-- going by the handle of Gramercy Pictures at the time). Along with typing up the script for Vice Squad (1953), with her theater background, Fielder soon found herself cross-promoted to spec-script reader, story editor, and production assistant when she helped director Laven scout locations and sketch out his set-ups, which officially knocked the temporary tag off her title. Then, after UA gave the OK on what was to become The Monster that Challenged the World (1957), when the original script treatment didn't pass muster, Fielder convinced her triumvirate of bosses to give her a crack at rewriting it, and the rest, as they say, is film history. 

When The Monster that Challenged the World was finished, UA was so happy with the results they immediately commissioned L-C-L to make a companion feature for the bottom half of the required double-bill. Needing something quick and cost-effective (-- the follow-up would have about half of Monster's budget), after a brain-storming idea-session, it was decided to bring the macabre into the suburbs. Once more, they turned to Fielder for the script, who laid the foundation for a very terse, tight and well-executed fright flick even though it had everything, including the kitchen sink, thrown into it: mad science, notions of vampirism and lyncanthropy -- all narcotically induced like Jekyll and Hyde. There's even a couple of nods to the creeping dread of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, especially the scene where our heroine realizes those footfalls aren't her own echoes as she moves down a deserted street. 

Feeling he lost out on a more prestigious directing gig due to his last picture being about killer crustaceans from the Salton Sea, Laven wanted to disassociate himself from this type of genre picture, and so, Paul Landres took over as director for The Vampire (1957). Behind the camera, Jack Mackenzie had actually worked with Val Lewton on Isle of the Dead (1945), and together, with Fielder's script, their extremely effective efforts is amplified by a dedicated cast, a couple of great shocks (-- the reveal of the desiccated corpse), and a few gruesomely macabre moments (-- the disposal of the psychiatrist in the incinerator). The only complaint I have and the film's only real failure is the make-up of our monster, itself, which is less horrific and more a drunken sod who fell face first into a mud puddle.

"Boogah-Boogaohhhh show me the way to go hoomme...*hic*"

As a long time fan of The Monster that Challenged the World, I have no idea why it took me so long to catch up with it's co-feature. And The Vampire turned out so good it has me anxious to check out L-G-L's follow up double-feature, Return of the Vampire (which I understand is pretty good) and The Flame Barrier (which I understand kinda stinks). Fielder pitched in on the scripts for these, too, co-writing the latter with George Worthing Yates (THEM!, The Amazing Colossal Man). I hate to call it a feminine touch but one can sense something a little different about the two features I've seen that she had a hand in; something a little less perfunctory about the love interests and auxiliary characters; something almost, well, motherly.

One of the elements I really appreciated in The Vampire was the time spent on the family dynamic subplot between the infected doctor and his daughter (Reed), who thinks her (widower) father's violent mood swings are all her fault, which has less to do with her unknowingly giving him the wrong bottle of pills and more to do with that's just the way a kid's mind works when their parents are falling apart in front of them. And the doctor's later efforts to keep her at arm's length and eventually get her out of harm's way by pawning her off on a distant relative, when he refuses to explain why, is some pretty heart-wrenching stuff. Definitely some scars left, there.

Sorry. It just seems reviewers in general are always quick to point out when juvenile actors fail horribly and cause catastrophic ruination, myself included, so it only stands to reason to give props where props are due. Credit to both Beal and Reed for the execution and to Fielder for fleshing these characters out, which eventually makes the penultimate climax of The Vampire even more tragic.

Sources: I Talked with a Zombie (McFarland & Co., 2008) by Tom Weaver;  Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes" (McFarland & Co., 1999) by Tom Weaver.

The Vampire (1957) Gramercy Pictures :: United Artists / P: Arthur Gardner, Arnold Laven, Jules V. Levy / D: Paul Landres / W: Pat Fielder / C: Jack MacKenzie / E: John Faure / M: Gerald Fried / S: John Beal, Coleen Gray, Kenneth Tobey, Lydia Reed, Dabbs Greer

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