Curse of the Vampires

The legendary Fred Olen Ray has pulled the stake from the heart of this film, and I for one am grateful.

I haven't yet reviewed any of Fred Olen Ray's movies for this site. I did think of including The Tomb in an overview of movie adaptations of Bram Stoker's awful novel The Jewel of Seven Stars... but then I realized that by comparison to the others, i.e. The Awakening, Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, Bram Stoker's The Mummy with Louis Gossett, etc., Ray's film was actually one of the better ones. That thought scared me out of the whole idea. Anyway, Ray, having earned his niche in Bad Movie History with titles like Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Alienator, has never been content to rest on his laurels. Not only is he still making movies by the fistful, he's also started a wonderful line of DVDs under the Retromedia label.

The initial 4 titles in Retromedia's Drive-In Theater line include Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, Fear Chamber (one of Boris Karloff's four posthumous Mexican films), Eddie Romero's Beast of the Yellow Night and Gerardo de Leon's late vampire flick, Curse of the Vampires. These last two films are classic Filipino horrors, part of the flood of cheap movies that were made in the Philippines to turn a quick profit on the US drive-in circuit (the on-line magazine Wild Picture provided an excellent article on how and why these films were made; unfortunately that site no longer exists).

I saw Beast of the Yellow Night on tape a few years ago (I'm sure Retromedia's edition will be much better than the tape I saw, which featured an introduction by a distressingly frail John Carradine. Carradine read his lines from a card, which he had clearly never seen before; to make matters worse, whoever did write the lines got many of his facts wrong). Despite its excellent title, Beast is actually a very disappointing film. It stars John Ashley (of course) as an Army deserter hunted down after committing atrocities. As he lies dying, he is approached by a strange man, who offers him his life in exchange for... certain services. And certain sacrifices. Agar, having sunk as low as a human being can go (no, not just by appearing in this film), agrees. The strange man turns out to be the Devil, as if we had any doubts, and he proceeds to re-incarnate Ashley in the bodies of other people. Ashley's mission is to use his new lives to corrupt as many people as he can.

This is an interesting premise, but the film fails to deliver on it. We're supposed to get the idea that John realizes the value of his lost humanity through his years of slavery to the Devil. But we only see one of John's new incarnations, and rely on the Devil's expository dialogue to fill in the rest of the story; that's just not enough to involve the audience's sympathy. The twist of this new incarnation is that the man John is replacing looks exactly like John did in his original existence. The shock of recognition is supposed to be one of the things that restores his conscience; however, since we've never seen him any other way, the plot device doesn't work.

Another problem is that while he's attached to the devil, we never really see Ashley do anything particularly evil. Querulous, perhaps; selfish and pompous, certainly, but... evil? Not really. And we're supposed to get the idea that John's soul is awakened, Faust-style, by the love of a woman; but that's not supported by the script. In fact, it's really financial security and the trappings of middle-class comfort that do the trick... and here I should mention that we don't see John being particularly "good" any more than we see him being particularly "evil". In any case. his behavior angers the devil, who periodically turns him into a reptilian, blood-drinking monster as a punishment for breaking his contract.

Three quarters of the way through my viewing of Beast, my tape broke. I didn't even bother to repair it, or to wonder how it all turned out. It really didn't interest me. I suppose I've never really acquired a taste for Filipino horror -- though I have a little more enthusiasm for classic bottom-of-the-barrel fare like Brides of Blood or Mad Doctor of Blood Island, than for the relatively well-intentioned fiasco which is Beast of the Yellow Night.

Curse of the Vampires, on the other hand, is a gem. It seems to have been made to appeal more to local audiences than to Americans: John Ashley is nowhere in sight, and the cast is entirely Filipino. Also, it's a full-blooded period Gothic, full of sentimental and religious overtones that seem decidedly old-fashioned, compared to the "Count Yorga"-type vampire movies that were making the rounds in the States.

Presented in what the jacket describes as a "murky letterboxed edition", Retromedia's disc does indeed look like a fifth-generation VHS tape. As Ray acknowledges in his humorous introduction, the film stock has faded to pink, a terrible handicap for a film that relies heavily on colored lighting for effect. Never mind: Curse of the Vampires is still well worth watching, even though you can only see it dimly.

The story concerns a wealthy plantation family, the Escuderos, at the turn of the 20th century. The family patriarch is an elderly widower; the family's two grown children, Eduardo and Leonor, have just returned from the city, and their father has hosted a lavish party to celebrate their return. Leonor is reunited with her sweetheart, Danièl, while Eduardo is captivated by Danièl's sister (the actress playing Eduardo's squeeze has two moles on her cheek, down near her chin. The moles have just the right size and spacing to look like she's already been bit by a vampire in the wrong place).

All at once, things being to go wrong. First Eduardo and his girlfriend hear the unearthly sound of a woman screaming in agony. The sound seems to be coming from somewhere under the house. Rushing in to find out what is happening, Eduardo finds his father collapsed in his room, a victim of an apparent heart attack.

A doctor is called in, but the old man is much more interested in seeing his lawyer to make sure that certain provisions of his will are executed after his death. Eduardo and Leonor will each receive half of his estate, but the family hacienda must be burned to the ground immediately. Eduardo overhears this, and is naturally very upset. Without stopping to think of his father's delicate health, Eduardo confronts him and accuses him of disinheriting his children. Sensing his son's anguish, the old man decides to show Eduardo exactly why his instructions must be obeyed.

Behind a painting of his late wife is a secret passage, leading into an underground crypt. In the crypt is the coffin of Doña Consuela, Eduardo's mother, and in the coffin... let's just say that for a dead woman, Doña Consuela is a very light sleeper. Eduardo descends with his father and his father's hunchbacked servant -- isn't there always a hunchbacked servant? -- and the horrible truth is revealed. Eduardo's mom is a bloodthirsty beast, a howling, inhuman monster. Wherever she goes, she is bathed in a weird red light (which, added to the general faded pinkness of the film itself, makes her difficult to see). Each night the old man descends into the tomb with a whip, to beat the vampire into submission. Starved, beaten, but unable to die, the old woman runs shrieking through the crypt -- which accounts for the noise Eduardo heard the previous night.

Eduardo is shocked by the sight of his mother reduced to such a condition. Foolishly, he goes down to her when his father is asleep. She is afraid of him, because of the crucifix he wears. Eduardo can't bear to see her run from him, so he casts aside his crucifix. As you might have guessed, Mom runs up and give him a nice big kiss...

In Curse of the Vampires, it's easy to see a connection between vampirism and domestic abuse. The relationship between the mother and the father is clearly not a healthy one, and though it remains hidden for a while, it gradually poisons the lives of the children. Eduardo is the first to inherit the infection, and he in turn passes on the curse to his girlfriend. When Eduardo attacks the girl, he thrusts her behind a tree before he ravages her. We are invited to imagine what is going on just out of sight, and we are encouraged to understand it as a sexual attack, not just as a genteel nip on the neck.

After the attack, Eduardo goes to the girl's family and offers to marry the girl he has despoiled. Her brother Danièl wants to kill him right there, but his father permits the wedding to go on. After the joyless ceremony, Eduardo steels himself, and then tells his bride the conditions of their marriage: she will be his slave, submitting to his will... The frail and damaged girl can do nothing but agree. This is probably the most harrowing scene of the film, as it doesn't need the tinge of vampirism to be disturbing. Supernatural or otherwise, Eduardo is an abuser. Scenes like this are playing out behind closed doors all the time, all over the world.

Later on, as the famished Eduardo nourishes himself on the servant girls, his wife watches from the shadows. It is never made clear if she is jealous that he is drinking from the throats of other women, or that he is feeding and she is not. Though she becomes a full vampire only gradually, she is completely drawn into her husband's predatory existence.

The movie gets seriously goofy as it approaches its last act. It's here that the sentimental aspects of the story start to overwhelm the surprisingly brutal tone of the movie so far. There's still a lot of good bits to be found, though: for example, there's a sword fight between a vampire and a ghost! Then there's Leonor's confrontation with an entire household of vampires in a dismal cemetery. If things get a little out of control in the finale (in which it seems the Virgin Mary herself is required to take a hand in the proceedings), it doesn't diminish the power of the movie as a whole.

Curse of the Vampire is a very credible Gothic, with its undertones of vile family secrets, incest and sexual slavery. Like its Gothic forebears going all the way back to Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, it balances its fascination for the dark side of human nature with episodes of cloying sweetness. In spite of its shortcomings, Curse of the Vampires is a relatively rich and rewarding genre film, and it should appeal to a broader audience than the better-known "Blood Island" series. Certainly it stands as one of the best horror movies to come from the Philippines. Many thanks to Fred Olen Ray for freeing the film from its lonely tomb, before it faded away completely.