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Tune in Tonight: "Vampire"

Tune in Tonight: "Vampire"

You can’t keep a good bloodsucker down. Vampires may not be “in” right now, but they’ll surely rise again, because we love stories about tragic, misunderstood monsters, especially when you add in some sex and violence. There’s at least a small part of all of us who wouldn’t mind the idea of eternal life as a supernatural being who can command absolute control over anyone we want. Or at least, be able to pull off wearing a cape.

1979 was a banner year for vampires. Frank Langella redefined the lead role of Dracula. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot was adapted into a two part miniseries. Klaus Kinski was an all too convincing Nosferatu. There was the inevitable comedy, with Love at First Bite. And, of course, there was a TV series–or at least, an attempt at a TV series, with a feature length pilot simply called Vampire.

Written by Steven Bochco two years before he struck gold with Hill Street Blues, the film opens with the dedication of a newly built church, designed by husband and wife architects John and Leslie Rawlins (Jason Miller and Kathryn Harrold). In attendance at the dedication is retired police detective Harry Kilcoyne (E.G. Marshall), who’s apparently the only person there who notices that the shadow the cross on top of the church casts is burning a hole into the ground nearby. Later that night, a man bursts out of the damaged ground, looking awfully cheesed about having his personal space infringed upon.

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Not long after, Leslie’s friend, Nicole (Jessica Walter), gushes about her new boyfriend, millionaire Anton Voytek, telling Leslie “It started out as business, and then…wow!” She then gets the best line in the whole movie with “I used to think that being the hottest lady lawyer in San Francisco was where it’s at, and now I look back and wonder how I ever could have lived that way!”

Wow indeed, Nicole, wow indeed. Given that his name is Anton Voytek, it should come as no surprise that he’s the titular vampire. Played by Richard Lynch, Anton is an ascot wearing charmer whom Leslie is entranced by immediately, staring at him in open mouthed awe. John is less enamored of him, but certainly interested in the money Anton offers to help recover his family’s priceless art collection from the ruins of an old house. When it looks as though many of the pieces in the collection were stolen, however, John has no choice but to stand by as Anton is arrested for art theft.

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Anton, who manages to be sprung from jail just before the sun renders him to a charcoal briquette, vows revenge. His revenge involves putting the moves on Leslie, who folds like a cheap beach chair, and he later murders her. John, driven nearly mad both with grief and the knowledge that vampires apparently are real, is hospitalized, and narrowly escapes Anton’s malevolent clutches, thanks to Detective Kilcoyne. Kilcoyne tells John that, forty years earlier, he and his partner investigated a series of brutal murders in which the victims’ throats were torn out. Kilcoyne’s partner, believing that the culprit was a vampire, quit the police force to join a seminary, and later disappeared. Kilcoyne believes his partner died while attempting to defeat Voytek, and now wants to finish what was started–with John’s help.

Because vampire movies are nothing without a damsel in distress (and because Leslie, the character you expect to fill that role here, is killed off barely a half hour into it), we’re eventually introduced to Andrea (Barrie Youngfellow), Kilcoyne’s sassy single mom next door neighbor, who is treated alternately as a love interest and a daughter figure for him (even Kilcoyne himself says “I don’t know whether to marry her or adopt her,” which yuck). Either poor scriptwriting, bad editing, or both leads to Kilcoyne convincing Andrea that she and her young son are in mortal danger, and Andrea meekly going along with what he says, without him once mentioning Voytek, or anything that happened to him and John.

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Indeed she is, though, as Voytek kidnaps Andrea and taunts Kilcoyne with threats of hurting her. Kilcoyne and John show up just in time, though, attacking Voytek with holy water and sending him fleeing into the night. Andrea is saved, and though all seems well for the moment, John gravely intones “It’s not over, Harry.” Alas, it was over, though: the series that Vampire was created to set up never came to pass.

The movie may be called Vampire, but it really should have been called Vampire Hunters, as far more screen time is devoted to John and Kilcoyne as they discuss Voytek’s origins and what they need to do to destroy him. Voytek just disappears for long periods of time, which is a shame, because Richard Lynch is genuinely good in the role, relishing such juicy lines of dialogue as “But I am going to touch her, Harry, I promise you that. And she’s going to love it.” Every time he’s on screen it’s a enjoyably campy romp, as opposed to when Jason Miller and E.G. Marshall are on screen, when it’s an overly earnest slog.

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Miller in particular, playing the Jonathan Harker to Marshall’s Van Helsing, takes his role very seriously, acting so hard he can’t help but get a little bit of it on you. This results in some truly baffling line readings, like telling Leslie “Oh babe, I love you so much, I love you more than life” with a look and tone of grim determination, rather than affection. Half of his dialogue is swallowed up in an indecipherable mumble, while the other half is shouted to the back row. Marshall, in the meantime, is merely doing a take on Kolchak, minus the sense of humor.

It’s not really clear how Vampire would have worked as a series–would it have just involved John and Kilcoyne following Voytek all over the world, and Voytek narrowly escaping death? Would they eventually encounter other supernatural beings, a la The Night Stalker? Would John ever pass that kidney stone that is troubling him, given the constant pained grimace Jason Miller has throughout the entire movie?

With not a single drop of blood spilled, and nobody bearing fangs (Leslie, who briefly reappears later, merely opens her mouth and makes a sound like she’s trying to clear phlegm out of her throat), it’s clear that this was an attempt at a classy, dignified take on the vampire mythos. But, come on. We’re talking about a creature that can turn into a bat, and sleeps in a coffin. It takes a special touch to tell the story successfully without humor and self-awareness, and it doesn’t work here. Vampire is at least twice as serious as it should be, and at least half as fun.

Original airdate: October 7, 1979

Tune in Tonight: "The Paul Lynde Halloween Special"

Tune in Tonight: "The Paul Lynde Halloween Special"