Monday, April 25, 2016

Vampire, The (1957)

... aka: El hombre vampiro (The Vampire Man)
... aka: Immer bei Anbruch der Nacht (Always at Nightfall)
... aka: It's Always Darkest Before the Dawn
... aka: Mark of the Vampire

Directed by:
Paul Landres

Eccentric loner scientist Matt Campbell, who's been conducting experiments of some sort in an old house for years, falls over at his desk and is discovered by a neighborhood boy who's been helping to supply him with animals. The boy goes and immediately retrieves friendly and good-hearted town doctor Paul Beecher (John Beal). Once Paul arrives, the scientist mutters something about finding “the answer,” hands him over a bottle of pills and instructs him to take them before he dies. Paul sticks them in his pocket and thinks nothing of it, especially after a coroner's report reveals that Dr. Campbell had a history of heart problems. A sufferer of bad migraine headaches, Paul, a widower and single father, asks his young daughter Betsy (Lydia Reed) to grab him a few headache pills. Guess what pills she grabs out of his jacket pocket instead? Yep, you got it: the pills the dead scientist gave him. It isn't long after taking one that Paul becomes ill. He dismisses his neurotic patient Marion (Ann Staunton), lies down on a bed in his office and goes to sleep; not waking until the following morning. Or so he thinks.

The next day, Sheriff Buck Donnelly (Kenneth Tobey) shows up at the office and tells Paul all about a “prowler” that was reported lurking around the neighborhood near where his office is located. Paul then receives an emergency phone call to check in on Marion. Upon arriving at her home, he finds she's bedridden, has a really bad fever and two strange puncture marks on her neck. But once she lays eyes on him she suddenly snaps out of her docile state, freaks out and keels over dead. That death is also blamed on a heart attack. Paul soon comes to the realization that his daughter possibly gave him those other pills and wants to find out as much as he can about what the scientist was up before he passed away. Thankfully, a few men show up to shed some light on everything...

Dr. Will Beaumont (Dabbs Greer), who runs a university psychology department and was both a former colleague of Dr. Campbell's and a former college friend of Paul's, arrives in town. He's brought along mysterious research assistant Henry Winston (James Griffith), who always wears sunglasses because his eyes are extremely light sensitive from a childhood trauma, to help assimilate him with Campbell's research so he can hopefully take over where the previous researcher left off. Paul meets up with them and many discoveries are made in regards to the experiments. Campbell was in the process of researching regression and developed the pills to temporarily drain blood from the brain and revert the taker's mind to a primitive state in order to one day reverse the process. He'd only tested the pills out on animals up to this point and all of them, aside from some vampire bats, have died from a rare tissue-destroying disorder called “capillary disintegration.” According to Campbell's notes, the pills (once taken to activate the process) must then be administered every 24 hour or else the subject will suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms and extreme pain.

What unfolds here is a very interesting Jekyll & Hyde-style tale of a decent man transformed into a grotesque killer by an experimental drug, though the protagonist this time out doesn't at all bring any of this upon himself and is the tragic victim of circumstance. This may not be the first film where science and not the supernatural is responsible for turning someone into a vampire, but this concept still wasn't at all common in 1957. There are no religious repellents, no lethal rays of sunlight, no stakes through the heart ... In fact, none of the standard mythology is really used aside from the vampire drinking blood from a victim's neck and even then this manages to add a neat twist. A bite doesn't transform the victim into a vampire, but instead passes along a virus that causes a rapid cellular degeneration that leads to madness and death. What is even less common is how the film works on another level entirely as an insightful addiction parable. The uncommonly thoughtful and multi-layered script was written by Patricia Fielder.

Sure, the budget is low, the make-up design isn't very good even for 1957 and the old school time lapse transformation scenes are executed rather poorly, but this manages to rise above most other 50s B pictures in a number of different ways. It also deserves better than to be written off as a "typical" product of its time: it's well-acted, intelligent and mature. Even the few minor comedy elements present are more sophisticated than usual and dependent on clever dialogue and the eccentricities of several supporting characters.

Brilliantly holding the whole thing together, and giving the proceedings a real heart, is Beal, who gives an outstanding central performance as a decent man turned into a desperate, murderous junkie by an act of science. Had this same performance been in a Hollywood drama about drug or alcohol addiction instead of a low-budget horror film about a vampire, Beal would have been a major award contender in 1957. The rest of the cast, which also includes pretty female lead Coleen Gray (Nightmare Alley, The Leech Woman) as Paul's compassionate nurse, Paul Brinegar (How to Make a Monster) and Louise Lewis (Blood of the Vampire), is also very strong.

This Gramercy Pictures production was released to theaters by United Artists and often double-billed with The Monster That Challenged the World (1957), which was directed by one of this film's three producers, Arnold Laven, and also written by Fielder. The same basic team also made the sci-fi film The Flame Barrier and another vampire film: The Return of Dracula, the following year. All of them, aside from Barrier, have been released on both DVD and VHS by MGM/UA, with Return and Vampire paired together for their "Midnite Movies" line.

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