What exactly is The Kiss of the Vampire? In the late 1950s, Hammer turned horror movies and the British movie industry on their heads with their adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein. As we all know, both would go on to be huge franchises for the studio. There were no complications with Frankenstein sequels, but with Count Dracula they'd unfortunately killed him at the end of the first film. Tch. Careless. Of course he'd eventually go on to star in about a gazillion Hammer films, dying and being reborn in almost every one like a bloodstained Antichrist, but it took them eight years to come up with the idea of bringing him back. They never found another vampire like Christopher Lee.
However that doesn't mean Hammer made no vampire films between 1958 and 1966. Brides of Dracula (1960) didn't include the man himself but did bring back Peter Cushing's Van Helsing, then three years later they made this film. The Kiss of the Vampire. An important thing to note is that despite being a Dracula-less Hammer vampire film, it has no tits. The Vampire Lovers (1970) would kick off a movie series about Ingrid Pitt's breasts, but that was the seventies. This is essentially a Dracula film without Dracula, written by Anthony Hinds and pretty much ticking all the boxes.
It's split into two halves. The first half is in every detail the first half of every Hammer vampire film ever. I exaggerate, but not by much. You have a pleasant but bland young couple, just married and travelling in the mountains. In accordance with cliche they run out of petrol, which is clearly doomed to happen in films like this even when you're driving some kind of mechanised carriage that would seem to date from about 1750. It's rather wonderful. It looks as if they forgot to harness up a horse. You don't climb inside it, but sit on top. By the way, the husband Gerald looks like a young Tony Curtis, while his wife Marianne is slightly boring but sweet.
They go to an old inn, run by a rather wonderful peasant gentleman with a gentle French accent, the most wonderful voice and a wife who always seems on the point of hysteria. "All our rooms are vacant... EXCEPT ONE." Inevitably there's also a chateau nearby whose charming and aristocratic inhabitants are only too pleased to offer their hospitality to these poor travellers. Everything's exactly as you'd expect. The lord of the castle is called Dr Ravner and is played by one Noel Willman, who's as urbane as you could want even if he's no Christopher Lee. Fortunately for him, he's also not being asked to wear the gigantic fangs they had in Brides of Dracula, with this film's vampires instead having stubby triangles that don't actually look particularly piercing.
My favourite vampire here is actually Isobel Black's Tania, who has quite a look on her face when invited to "recruit" young Gerald. Mmmmm, Tania. There's even a gruff bearded vampire-hunter stomping around the countryside, played by Clifford Evans. I think I preferred Andrew Keir in a similar role in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but there's not much in it. I like this one too.
Anyway, there's not much to say about the film's first half. It's fine. It's exactly what you'd expect from Hammer, even if I'd say it's perhaps at the lower end of Anthony Hinds's several attempts at telling basically the same story. Notice that the castle is a chateau and the innkeeper has a French accent, but he also refers to the "Herr Doctor Ravna", although you'd never guess to listen to them. Everyone who isn't a peasant talks like an RSC graduate, including the newlyweds. I wouldn't say I ever got bored during the film's first 45 minutes, but I did feel a certain lack of urgency. I was close to wishing the vampires would hurry up and start biting people. My mother always told me not to play with my food.
The second half is where the film goes loopy.
Remember all that stuff that perplexed me in the Dracula movies about "the cult of vampirism"? We saw some of it in Satanic Rites of Dracula, but here it's absolutely full-on. I can only think that brainwashed cultists were what everyone was talking about back then. Hmmm. Charles Manson's losers killed Sharon Tate in 1969. That's what this film's about and it plays the metaphor to the hilt, pushing its parallels so far that the vampires arguably stop being vampires. They don't drink to feed, but to recruit. Someone who's been taken over by the bloodsuckers isn't a monster to be staked through the heart, but a deluded loved one in need of rescuing. They're not even physically imposing, relying on their butler for muscle. It's fascinating to watch, but it's also being played so heavily that it's not even subtext. These cultists have kidnapped my wife! That's the movie we're watching. The vampire side of things is more like a bizarre bit of local colour.
Professor Zimmer, the vampire hunter, is of course mad. Don't go to the chateau! It's too sunny! You've got to wait until nightfall! Huh? I think I must have missed something there. He does however have a completely unique way of defeating the vampires, in which he offers homage to Beelzebub and the Great God Alpha (no, really). This method would only have worked during a full moon, when Saturn was in conjunction with Capricorn... "as it is tonight." Well, of course.
However the downfall of the vampires is an astonishing finale, undoubtedly the best of its kind in a Hammer movie once you've stopped laughing at the bats hanging on strings and boggling at the bizarre story logic. Maybe Ravna and co. were just fake vampires who'd been embarrassing the real ones? That would explain a lot, actually. There's also a lame fight scene and a farcically unconvincing rescue, but that's all part of the fun.
This is an odd film. It's utterly formulaic until the halfway point and the masked ball, which is actually rather creepy and marks the point where the cult stuff kicks in. Incidentally this was the main inspiration for Roman Polanski's comedy Dance of the Vampires, also known as The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). You'll see what I mean when you watch it. Personally I think this would have been a more successful film had its two halves married together better, but it ticks all the Hammer boxes and guarantees you a certain level of quality even if it's perhaps not one of their better ones. What it really needed, I think, was more personality. It doesn't have any stars. The cast is mostly unremarkable, whereas the film could have been wonderful if they'd only had some mad old bastard completely chewing up the scenery. Its bonkers moments are memorably so and even though there's no actual nudity, a few lady vampires do flash their knickers towards the end. They're wearing white robes that look like hospital gowns, with not much underneath.
To be honest, I don't think I'd recommend this. If you're looking to watch some Hammer, start instead with something with Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. However if you've watched your way through all their Frankenstein and Dracula films and you're looking for more, by all means dig up this thing. It's a historical curiosity and you can see why other films spawned multiple sequels and this one didn't, but it's not without interest.