July 13, 2021

Remembering William Smith and a Rare Horror Role

Poster - Grave of the Vampire, 1972
Now Playing:
Grave of the Vampire (1972)

Pros: At various points the film pays effective homage to classic vampires as well as contemporaneous ones like The Night Stalker.
Cons: Logic lapses and lack of sufficient backstory lead to confusion over characters’ actions and motivations.

I was sad to see the news of actor William Smith’s passing on July 5, 2021 at the age of 88. Although he made a long career out of playing bad guys, I first got to know Smith as Joe Riley, one of a trio of Texas Rangers (rounded out by Neville Brand and Peter Brown) led by the perpetually exasperated Capt. Parmelee (Phillip Carey) in the TV western Laredo (1965-67). Laredo was exciting and fun and didn’t take itself too seriously, and was right up there with The Wild, Wild West as my favorite TV western growing up.

The next time I encountered Mr. Smith, he had donned an eye-patch and a venomous disposition as Falconetti, poor man Tom Jordache’s (Nick Nolte) relentless nemesis in the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man (1976). The memorable part solidified Smith’s status as one of Hollywood’s most reliable, go-to villains.

There were few better suited to tough guy roles than Smith. He was a lifelong bodybuilder, amassing world armwrestling championships, Air Force weightlifting championships, and dozens of amateur boxing wins in between acting gigs.

William Smith as Joe Riley in Laredo, Falconetti in Rich Man, Poor Man, and James Eastman in Grave of the Vampire
The Good, the Bad, and the Toothy. William Smith as (L to R):
Joe Riley in Laredo, Falconetti in Rich Man, Poor Man, & James Eastman in Grave of the Vampire

But his tough guy exterior hid a brilliant mind. Smith became fluent in five languages, including Russian, which led to high government security clearances and hush-hush assignments while serving in the military. He was working on a Ph.d. when the acting bug bit hard in the form of an MGM contract. [Wikipedia.]

Smith got his acting start as a child in the ‘40s, appearing in mostly uncredited roles starting with The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and then, in quick succession, a number of films that would become memorable classics: The Song of Bernadette (1943), Going My Way (1944), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Gilda (1946), and The Boy with the Green Hair (1948).

By the 1960s, he was bouncing from one TV show to another, flexing his muscles and acting chops in all kinds of genres. By the late ‘80s the TV shows petered out, but offers of tough guy/villain roles in B movies (and frankly, some C, D and Z-grade flicks as well) kept him busy right up to the 20-teens. (Smith is at his B-villain best in the offbeat sci-fi-action-thriller-comedy Hell Comes to Frogtown, 1988; see my review here.)

In perusing Smith’s IMDb credits, I stumbled upon a familiar title, Grave of the Vampire from 1972. I’d long been aware of Grave for its unique premise: that vampires can be born as well as made -- in this case, as the result of a rape (!!) by a centuries-old vampire.

Grave of the Vampire has been in the public domain for sometime, with a long history of home video releases by Mill Creek, Alpha Video and Scream Factory, among many others; it’s also available on the Internet Archive and YouTube. Even so, I somehow managed to avoid seeing it until now.

Grave is one of the few out-and-out horror films on Smith’s long resume. It’s an oddity by anyone’s standards, and perhaps not the best pick to remember William Smith by, but because it’s so odd, it’s a natural for this blog.

The film begins with a scene that plays like the mother of all spooky campfire stories. A couple of quirky college students, Paul (Jay Scott) and Leslie (Kitty Vallacher) have parked their car out by the cemetery in the middle of the night (!?) to be alone so that Paul can propose. As Paul is putting a dime-store-looking ring on his girl’s finger, a prune-faced corpse (Michael Pataki) is waking up from his nap in a nearby crypt.

Michael Pataki as Caleb Croft rising from the Grave of the Vampire, 1972
"Next time I'm getting the satin interior."

Before you can say “never make love next to a cemetery,” the rejuvenated corpse is tearing the door off the car to get to the couple. The living deadman hurls Paul onto a gravestone and proceeds to drain the unfortunate young man of his blood as his girlfriend, paralyzed with fear, looks on. The monster then turns his attention to Leslie, dragging her off to an open grave to do unspeakable things.

As a result of her night of trauma, Leslie is now pregnant, but being the eternal optimist, she is excited to be carrying Paul’s child. Her doctor is less sanguine, telling her that what’s inside her womb “isn’t human,” and urging her to terminate the pregnancy (interesting advice, given that the year is 1940, years before ultrasound imaging and legal abortions became available).

Meanwhile, the police detective working the murder-assault case (Ernesto Macias) is preternaturally open-minded and intuitive, somehow connecting the brutal draining of Paul’s blood with the case of a murderer-rapist in Boston, Caleb Croft, who was electrocuted trying to escape from the police. Sometime afterwards, Croft’s corpse was transferred to the very cemetery where the attack took place. Okaaaaayyyy.

When Leslie’s baby is born, he won’t take his mother’s milk. The midwife is worried, advising the young mother to see a doctor. Leslie refuses to go back to the man who wanted her to have an abortion. By chance, when Leslie accidentally cuts her finger and the baby greedily laps up the drops of blood that happen to fall near its mouth, she discovers just what he needs. She proceeds to draw her own blood to feed her child. Yikes!

Kitty Vallacher feeding her vampire baby in Grave of the Vampire, 1972
"I think you're going to like this. It's full-bodied, with notes of bitter cherry
and tobacco, and a salty, piquant finish."

Fast forward 30 years. Leslie’s child is now to all appearances a handsome, strapping young man, but one who knows he is… different. Calling himself James Eastman (William Smith), he has vowed to track down and destroy the monster who assaulted his mother.

His search has taken him to a college campus and the classroom of Prof. Lockwood (Pataki again), who teaches a class on folklore and mythology. In class, Eastman reveals his deep interest in vampires, particularly a 17th century English one by the name of Charles Croyden, who, after committing unspeakable depredations on his native soil, fled England for the Massachusetts Bay colony and assumed the name of Caleb Croft. Lockwood, who looks suspiciously like a less wrinkly version of the animated corpse who assaulted Leslie, listens to Eastman with apparent interest.

Eastman hooks up with two very attractive fellow students, Anne (Lyn Peters) and Anita (Diane Holden), who get swept up in the young man’s mission to find Caleb Croft and dispatch him to Hades. A series of grisly murders in the college town, in which the victims were drained of blood, seems to be proof he’s on the right track.

Classroom scene with Michael Pataki and William Smith, Grave of the Vampire, 1972
James Eastman (William Smith) gets extra credit from Prof. Lockwood (Michael Pataki)
for his extensive knowledge of vampire lore.

Soon, one of the women will fall in love with Eastman and the other will implore Croft to make her his immortal vampire bride. And things will come to a bloody head when Lockwood/Croft invites his best students to earn extra credit by attending a seance at his mansion.

Like many low-budget horror movies, there are moments of inspired eeriness interspersed with scenes of jaw-dropping battiness.

The opening set-up of Croft awakening in his crypt is so classic as to be cliched, but is well done, especially the make-up, which is exactly how a vampire who hasn’t had a drop of blood in awhile should look.

For a newly awakened, desiccated member of the undead, Croft is amazingly strong and spry. The vampire ripping the car door off its hinges, breaking the young man’s back on a gravestone, and hauling the screaming Leslie off to the open grave is a shocking counterpoint to the languid, classic Dracula-like scene of Croft slowly opening the lid of the crypt.

But the film immediately follows up with its first head-scratching scene. Instead of being a skeptic, the investigating police Lt. immediately smells “Vampire!” Not only that, but he has somehow sussed out of thin air a connection to a certain Caleb Croft, a murderer and rapist who had been plying his nefarious trade in Boston.

Before we’ve had a chance to digest it all -- How does Panzer know so much about a murderer from out East? How did he make the vampire connection? Is he a secret vampire hunter as well as a policeman? -- the film cuts to the tender scenes of Leslie feeding her baby her own blood.

Similar head-scratching ensues with the scene of the first day of Lockwood’s class, when the 30 year-old Eastman regales the professor and the rest of the class with the legend of Croyden/Croft, the peripatetic vampire. What exactly, in his mission to hunt down Croft, has caused Eastwood to be in that town and that class? We don’t know. Eastman acts like he knows that Lockwood is Croft, or at least suspects it, but as things progress, he seems to be more interested in his attractive classmates, especially Anne, than in taking care of the monster.

William Smith and Lyn Peters in Grave of the Vampire, 1972
"I think you're going to like this, I was raised on this stuff!"

There’s also the question of his status as a human/vampire hybrid. He can move around in the daylight and seems perfectly normal. Yet, as a baby, he could only thrive on blood. Is that still the case, or has he become more human as an adult? It seems like the latter, but the film doesn’t provide any definitive answers (at least not until the very end).

In the meantime, as Eastman dithers, Croft is draining local women of their blood. In Grave of the Vampire, women aren’t just unlucky, passive targets, but instead actively participate in their own victimization. Croft seems to exude a powerful animal magnetism. First, a young woman approaches him at night with a proposition to go back to her place. Then later, an attractive librarian lets her hair down in front of him after she’s closed up shop. And the hunky Eastman, seemingly a chip off the old block, has no problem attracting women either.

Croyden/Croft is a somewhat awkward mash-up of two more famous contemporaneous vampires. Like Janos from The Night Stalker (TV movie, 1972), Croft is extremely physical, capable of tearing apart cars and not above using whatever’s handy, including garden tools, to rip open victims’ throats before gulping down their blood. And yet, like Count Yorga (1970), he is refined and attractive, a ladies' man, luring his victims into his lair like a human spider.

Michael Pataki was an interesting choice for Croft. Pataki was one of those familiar TV faces that you could never quite place. Before Grave of the Vampire, he had appeared on such sci-fi favorites as The Twilight Zone, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Star Trek (“The Trouble with Tribbles”), and he even had a small part in The Return of Count Yorga (1972). After Grave, he got a gig as Count Dracula in Dracula’s Dog (1977).

With a face and presence more suited to working class gangster roles than a centuries-old English vampire, Pataki still does a creditable job, especially in the wordless close-ups with blood dripping from his long vampire teeth. However, in the climactic seance scene, he goes over-the-top with a clipped, theatrical voice that sounds like a cheap stage magician trying to be heard in the back rows of a drafty theater.

Michael Pataki as Lockwood/Croft in Grave of the Vampire, 1972
"What? Do I have something in my teeth?"

Smith is a similarly odd choice as the vampire’s son. As the grown-up college student/vampire hunter, he is strangely passive and blank-faced, even when he’s being hit on by his beautiful classmates. It doesn’t help that the film doesn’t provide enough backstory to be able to make much sense of his motivations, or for that matter, where he is on the scale between human and vampire. It’s only at the end that he’s given a chance to get physical and decidedly emotional.

In addition to being thematically dark, Grave of the Vampire is photographically dark, with more than a few extended scenes of silhouettes moving against occasional patches of light. With Grave, it’s more of a feature than a bug. Like the film's juxtaposition of quiet, spooky scenes with bursts of extreme violence, the dark, can’t-quite-make-out-what’s-going-on sequences that stand cheek by jowl with the well-lit scenes of the mundane world (e.g., Lockwood’s classroom) keep the viewer off-kilter and not knowing what to expect.

Considering that Grave was shot in a little over a week for $50,000, it delivers a fair amount of frightful bang for its buck. And for William Smith fans, it’s worth seeing for a rare, quirky horror role that came almost smack dab in the middle of his crazy-long acting career.

Where to find it: With its public domain status, you can hurl a wooden stake in almost any direction and hit a copy. Start here or here

July 2, 2021

I Can’t Believe My Parents Let Me Watch That, Part Two

Way back in February 2020, I wrote about how grateful I was that my parents looked the other way when, as a pre-teen, I stayed up on Friday and Saturday nights to watch my beloved sci-fi flicks and Universal horrors.

I’m sure they had some mild reservations about my viewing choices, and they weren’t above occasionally using TV privileges as a disciplinary tool, but at the same time, the attitude clearly was “so he’s watching old reruns of Dracula and Frankenstein-- how harmful can that be?”

And most of the time, they were right. By the time I started collecting copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, paging through the dogeared issues while eagerly awaiting the next installment of the local creature feature, I was too old to be frightened by the classic monsters. It was a lot of fun watching them chase their victims around creepy cobwebbed castles and retro laboratories, but really scary they were not.

The Jasons, Freddies, and Michael Myers had quite a few more years to wait before a more relaxed, “oh, whatever” society allowed them to slice and dice their way across movie and TV screens.

Stairs down to dark, scary basement
When I was a kid, I was allowed to watch my late night monster
movies on one condition: I had to watch them in the basement.

By contrast, the classic monsters were born in an age of moral panic. In the 1920s, when Lon Chaney was thrilling audiences with his portrayals of The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Universal’s first horror cycle, studio moguls were worried that too many thrills -- especially in the form of Hollywood sex and murder scandals, played against a backdrop of scantily clad flappers -- were turning uptight mainstream America off of their products.

Even as Universal was gearing up for its second horror wave featuring Frankenstein and Dracula, Hollywood was attending to its image problem by developing the Motion Picture Production Code to stake out what was permissible and what was not for U.S. audiences. (The code was popularly known as the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, first chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.)

By the time the Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter were done strutting their stuff, the Code was in full effect, and Universal took a few years off from monster-making before the lure of profits brought the monsters back in the form of Son of Frankenstein in 1939. The Code’s finger-wagging lasted until 1968, when it was replaced by the Motion Picture Association ratings system, which is still in force.

It’s testimony to the genius of the folks at Universal that they were able to navigate the moral panics and the Code to produce a series of horror films that were long on atmosphere but hardly contained a drop of blood, mostly suggesting violence rather than splashing it on the screen. Even in today’s over-the-top entertainment landscape, the relatively understated Universal monsters are still revered by some and recognizable to almost everyone.

I was barely a teenager when the MPAA ratings were introduced in 1968. Along with a cartoon, theatergoers at the time were treated to a short introduction to the new system, which replaced the Code’s pre-censorship of content with a scheme that theoretically prevented children from being exposed to rough content that was increasingly becoming the norm. The very first letter ratings were:

  • Rated G: Suggested for general audiences.
  • Rated M: Suggested for mature audiences - Parental discretion advised.
  • Rated R: Restricted – persons under 16 not admitted, unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian.
  • Rated X: Persons under 16 not admitted. [Wikipedia]

By 1968, there was plenty of rough content to be protected from. It was the beginning of the of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll era, with a good amount of blood mixed in. Independent filmmakers were finding that almost any kind of transgressive, youth-oriented subject matter translated into box office gold, so theater and drive-in screens started filling up with hot stewardesses and nurses, drug-crazed motorcycle gangs and LSD trips.

On the horror front, Hammer Films had spent the past decade spicing up the classic monsters with heaving bosoms and technicolor blood. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead upped the ante even further, introducing mainstream audiences to zombies munching on human body parts, forever changing what was acceptable to show in your neighborhood theater.

As with most revolutions, it only seemed like propriety and the conservative status quo had been toppled overnight. In reality, there were all kinds of rough and shocking scenes in movies leading up to the late ‘60s that made their way past censors, decency leagues and concerned parents, and eventually wound up on my cherished creature features.

The following are a few more examples of shocking scenes that I watched late at night, and paid for with fitful sleep and a few nightmares. They may not seem much by today’s horror standards, but each was a sort of building block leading to today’s “freedom” of expression. I survived them, and I’m better for it (I think).

Parody of MPAA preview ratings

Cosmic Monsters (aka The Strange World of Planet X; 1958)

At the time, Cosmic Monsters seemed like a perfectly innocuous big bug sci-fi movie, produced by the Brits on a nothing budget, and starring American C-list actor Forrest Tucker (who around the same time starred in such UK productions as The Abominable Snowman and The Crawling Eye).

The highlight of Cosmic Monsters features scenes of soldiers shooting at supposed giant insects, which consisted of insert shots of actual insects doing insecty sorts of things. However, two scenes grabbed my attention. In the first, protagonist Michele Dupont (Gaby AndrĂ©) gets tangled up in a giant spider’s web -- which of course had been done before, but in this version, the filmmakers cleverly integrated shots of Gaby with an actual spider jerking its legs around in real spider-time (not a lame-looking, slow-moving puppet), making for a more shuddery effect.

In the second, a large centipede-looking thing attacks a soldier and chews half of his face off -- needless to say, that got my attention. The only copies of the movie I’ve been able to find show only the aftermath of the giant bug attack, but my memory might not be so shaky after all. According to the movie’s IMDb page:

"The film was originally released in the UK in 1958 with an uncut 'X' certificate as 'The Strange World of Planet X (1958)'. It was then cut down to an 'A' certificate in 1960 and released as "The Strange World", and was missing some shots of Michelle trapped in a giant web and a dead man's face being eaten by an insect."

Speaking of getting caught up in a web of sci-fi intrigue, 20 years before Alien, Beast from Haunted Cave captured hapless humans and spun them up tight in huge webs in order to drain their lifeblood a little at a time.

The first time I saw the scene below, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end (see my full review of Beast here). Beast from Haunted Cave was shot quick and cheap, but also delivered the stuff of real nightmares.

While The Monster of Piedras Blancas is a poor man’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, it is far from the worst Creature imitator. In spite of the low budget, the producers managed to get Jack Kevan, who had worked on the original Creature suit, to cobble together the Piedras Blancas monster from parts scavenged from other productions (see more about how the suit was created here). The end result is pretty effective.

Nevertheless, the filmmakers decided that they needed something more than a cool suit to lure jaded teenagers to the drive-in, so they gave their creature a predilection for **GULP** decapitating its victims before feasting on them.

This one is really rough, and in retrospect, it’s amazing that by the time I turned 13, I had seen Hypnotic Eye at least twice. The disturbing plot revolves around women in deep trances mutilating themselves with common household appliances and chemicals. Investigators find a common thread: they all had attended a stage hypnotist show and were volunteer subjects.

The film immediately gets down to business with one such incident. It’s perhaps all the more disturbing that, despite the low budget, the movie is well made, with more than a few stylishly suspenseful moments.

In addition to adding copious amounts of blood and boobs to cinematic vampire lore, Hammer Studios transformed Dracula from a smooth, refined nobleman who patiently lured his victims into his trap like a human spider, to a frenetic, bloody-eyed monster who could scarcely wait to put the bite on his prey.

The culmination of Hammer’s feral Dracula was Prince of Darkness, in which Christopher Lee plays the part with silent ferocity, stalking his unwary guests more like a wolf than a spider. The way in which the Count is resurrected was a big eye-opener for me, the first time I had seen a human being trussed up like a side of beef and sacrificed in such a horrific way.