While on a motoring honeymoon in the Carpathian mountains, Gerald (Edward De Souza) and Marianne (Jennifer Daniel) find themselves stranded at a local inn. Lovely Marianne attracts the attention of Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman), leader of a cult of pleasure-seeking vampires. Ravna’s children: Carl (Barry Warren) and Sabina (Jacquie Wallis) lure the newlyweds to an extravagant masked ball, where Marianne is abducted and initiated into the cult, while Gerald is cast out and told his wife never existed. Elsewhere, drunken vampire-killer, Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) stalks Tania (Isobel Black), a beautiful teenage bloodsucker prowling the village. Zimmer comes to Gerald’s aid and they set out to rescue Marianne.
Originally intended to be the third Dracula movie, Kiss of the Vampire is one of Hammer’s most obscure, yet wonderfully stylish vampire movies. The script, by producer Anthony Hinds (written under his usual pseudonym: John Elder), is a dry-run for all those Dracula scenarios he wrote throughout the sixties: young lovers caught in the middle of a mythic duel between monster and savant. It was early days, so the formula hadn’t yet turned stale and Hinds offers some interesting twists. Here, the vampire hunter is cold and menacing, tortured by the death of a loved one, and although Ravna is an effete sadist (“You must not expect your Queensbury rules here”, he snarls after thumping Gerald from behind), his vampire kin are warm and welcoming to Marianne. The version shown on American TV as Kiss of Evil removes most of the blood and introduces a subplot with actress Sheila Welles, as a teenager in love with Carl. It’s an unnecessary embellishment, when they could have done more to expand the Hitchcockian “lady vanishes” gambit. Everyone denies seeing Gerald with his wife, but tension is released a little too quickly.
Much of the credit should go to Don Sharp, the inventive filmmaker behind such late night gems as The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), Psychomania (1971), and Secrets of the Phantom Caverns (1985). Modern viewers may find it a slow build, but Sharp draws mystery via skilful scares and creepy details, like the moment the masked revellers all stop dancing and stare at Marianne. As with many Hammer movies, sex is brought to the fore, from Isobel Black’s seductive vampire minx (the actress returned for Hammer’s Twins of Evil (1971), but was a regular in children’s TV - from Ace of Wands to Jackanory!), to the teasing out of Marianne’s repressed sensuality. She is marked for corruption in a ravishing red dress, lured naked before the cult to be swathed in a white robe, and led onto Ravna’s bed for his feast. De Souza and Daniel make appealing, awfully posh leads, capable of compassion, as when they stumble upon the landlady (Vera Cook) weeping over her lost daughter. Evans is equally impressive as the gruff, haunted Professor Zimmer, a hero who may be as dangerous as the monsters he hunts.
Broken down to its stylish set-pieces, Kiss of the Vampire has much to offer: the shock opener where Zimmer plunges a shovel into a vampire corpse and blood spurts from its coffin; the mesmerizing masked ball that prefigures Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967); and especially the celebrated finale. Intended as the climax to Terence Fisher’s excellent Brides of Dracula (1960), it was removed when Peter Cushing sensibly declared Van Helsing would have no truck with the forces of darkness. Used here it befits Zimmer’s ambiguous nature, as he summons a horde of animated bats to wreak gory vengeance upon the bloodsucking cult. Great stuff.