As the title suggests there’s a vampiric element, and there’s not a great deal unusual in that, Hammer having successfully revived interest in bloodsuckers. What is unusual, however, and a couple of years before that studio’s The Vampire Lovers (1970) is the idea of female empowerment. Previously, the sole purpose of a damsel in a horror picture was to lay bare a convenient bosom for a passing thirsty creature, or, have their clothing disarrayed and let out a scream when a monster pounced.
The twist here is that the vampire is a woman, Clare (Wanda Ventham), and men who are the victims except on the occasions when her father Dr Mallinger (Robert Flemyng) hypnotizes young women in order to give the creature a blood transplant. The beast exists as a creature and then morphs into Clare. For a time it looks as if Clare is merely possessed, but in reality appears much more as if she is enjoying being the beast, abandoning the enforced respectability of the times, luring men into the forest to have her rapacious way with them, the men naturally thinking they are in for a romantic tryst rather than being targeted by a predator.
There’s a wonderful scene that gives an insight into her mindset. Her friends put on a little play. Her role is the monster, a part she seizes with relish.
It’s one of those films you have to work out backward. In standard horror fashion it leaves the twist till close to the end and it would have been far more interesting if we had discovered at the outset that Clare was the beast, leading the men for the most part a merry dance, outwitting Inspector Quennell (Peter Cushing) and her adoring father Dr. Mallinger (Robert Flemyng).
The inspector, faced with a growing pile of corpses drained of blood, is baffled throughout, no Sherlock Holmes clever deductions here, and it naturally would not occur to any of the males, beyond Dr Mallinger who is in on the secret, to imagine a woman capable of not just committing such crimes but of exerting such power over a man. The story glosses over the genetics, it’s a version of Frankenstein obviously, but the background to it is missing, and I can see why. There has to be some mystery.
Hitchcock could not have done a better job of misleading the audience. For a start the story is told entirely through the male perspective. And it’s set up as a murder mystery, Quennell our lead as he dances from one corpse to the other, helped along in his information accumulation by lugubrious mortuary attendant (Roy Hudd), who is, ironically, as hungry as the beast, but for normal food rather than blood, always seen devouring something. Mallinger is not a mad professor either, but a distinguished one, celebrated in his field, giving lectures and attracting proteges like Britewell (William Wilde).
Although his daughter acts as laboratory assistant, Mallinger is hardly aware that his daughter is sizing up every male visitor as a potential victim.
The posters give away that the creature is a giant moth, and by and large the special effects (no CGI available of course) pull this off, the creature usually just glimpsed or seen from the distance, and the possibility that Mallinger is aware of what he is harbouring apparent when he enters a cellar wearing a leather hood and carrying a whip.
Tony Tenser’s production company Tygon has acquired cult status, in part for having the temerity to take on British horror giant Hammer at the height of its powers in the 1960s, and in part from the distinction of its output, making such films as The Sorcerers (1967) with Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing as Witchfinder General (1968) and Karloff, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele in The Crimson Cult/ The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968). Tenser ploughed a different furrow to Hammer at a time when that studio was also expanding into bigger-budgeted movies such as One Million Years B.C. (1966).
Capably not to say cleverly director by veteran Vernon Sewell (The Crimson Cult) it is miles ahead of its time and generally delivers the goods. Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965) is excellent as usual, Robert Flemyng (The Deadly Affair, 1967) proves a more interesting scientist than usual, steering clear of any craziness.
Wanda Ventham in her first leading role provides a fascinating character study, but you have to work backwards as I said, to realize just how good she is, the way she has, for Victorian times, her father under her thumb, and the seductive glances she casts at men, not to mention the ease with which she assists her father in his diabolical experiments without him realizing why she is so enamored. Female monsters had evolved from creatures before – in Cat People (1942), Snake Woman (1961) and Hammer’s The Reptile (1966) – but this was a more rapacious example of the species. Vanessa Howard (Some Girls Do, 1969) has a small role and you can spot Scottish character actor Glynn Edwards (Zulu, 1963) and television comedian Roy Hudd in his movie debut.
Screenwriter Peter Bryan (The Brides of Dracula, 1960), something of an expert in the horror field, turns the whole genre on its head with the gender politics examined here.