Headaches are a bitch!
And if you didn’t already know that, you will know it after watching the 1957 film, The Vampire.
Like many films of this kind, The Vampire starts with death.
Actually, I take that back. Technically, it’s true but it’s also little bit too melodramatic. And, to be honest, The Vampire starts with a 14 year-old boy, who is very much alive, riding his bicycle down the street of Anytown USA. He has a box with him, one that has air holes. On the back of his bike, a cardboard sign reads: “Bobs Pet Zoo! If Its Alive We Got It!” Apparently, the kid is smart enough to run his own zoo but not smart enough to know when to use an apostrophe.
Anyway, the kid comes up to a creepy old house, one that looks somewhat out of place in the otherwise pristine suburban neighborhood. Originally, I thought that maybe Pennywise lived in the house but then I reminded myself that The Vampire was made decades before It. Instead, the house belongs to Dr. Campbell, a scientist who is doing experiments with blood and who needs a never-ending supply of animal test subjects. (Boooooo! Animal testing! Hiss!) Apparently, the kid keeps Dr. Campbell supplied with animals. When the kid enters the house, Dr. Campbell is nowhere to be seen. It’s not until the kid enters the laboratory that he discovers Campbell, dead and slumped over his desk.
As news spreads of Campbell’s death, his friend, Dr. Paul Beecher (John Beal), searches through Campbell’s belongings and he comes across a mysterious bottle of pills, which he promptly takes home with him. Dr. Beecher is kindly doctor, the type that we all wish we could deal with whenever we had to go in for a check up. However, he suffers from terrible migraines. That night, when he’s literally blinded with a headache, he asks his daughter to get him his pills. She retrieves a bottle of pills but guess what? They’re the wrong pills! They’re not headache pills! Instead, they’re Dr. Campbell’s vampirism pills!
The pills cause Beecher to blaxk out. Whenever he comes to, he never has any memory of what he may or may not have done while he was out. However, strange things are happening to his friends and his patients. One of his longtime patients dies of fright when he comes by her house. On her neck, he finds two puncture wounds…
So, it’s not a spoiler for me to tell you that Dr. Beecher has been transformed into a vampire. And I know what you’re thinking. Why doesn’t he just stop taking the pills? The simplest answer is that the pills are addictive. The more complex answer is that he doesn’t want to. The pills have brought out his dark side and, now that it’s free, it’s not planning on going anywhere.
In a strange way, The Vampire reminded me of Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life. In Bigger Than Life, James Mason plays a gentle and good-hearted professor who, after taking steroids, turns into a monster who dreams of creating a master race. Bigger Than Life was unsettling for the exact same reason that The Vampire is unsettling. Both suggest that the pills didn’t turn their user into a monster. Instead, the pills just allowed his true self to come out.
The Vampire was a low-budget film, a B-movie as many would probably call it. The musical score is overly melodramatic and so are some of the actors. But I would say that The Vampire is actually a bit of a subversive masterpiece. This 1957 film suggests that behind the pristine facade of suburbia, there lurked monsters. Even an outwardly successful and respected man like Dr. Beecher can turn into something totally different behind closed doors, this film is saying. That’s a message that it as relevant today as it was when this film was first released. In its own way, The Vampire is a brilliant and important movie.