The Mystique of the Fang

Hammer Films didn’t originate vampires with fangs. There was the 1922 “Nosferatu” with Max Schreck’s rat-fanged Count Orlock and the Mexican “El Vampiro” may slightly pre-date Hammer’s 1957 “Dracula,” I’m not certain of that, but this piece isn’t about precedence, it’s about the use to which the flash of a fang was used.

From the beginning, Hammer always linked vampirism to decadence. It was a physical and a spiritual malady. So look closely at that scene in “Dracula” wherein the luckless would-be vampire-killer Jonathan Harker encounters Dracula’s woman in the castle library. Terence Fisher has already made use of Valerie Gaunt’s striking looks in her first appearance. There was something a little too intense, a little too hungry in her stare. But as the library scene begins, she comes on like a Gainsborough heroine begging to be released from the clutches of James Mason. So we are a bit lulled. Maybe she’s o.k. after all. But then the camera moves in on that close-up, and we see her eyes, heavy with lust, a dull flicker of recognition in them–and then her lips draw back and–bingo!–there’s the birth of the modern fanged vampire. Here Gaunt’s fangs are not a mere make-up man’s touch, not a bit of costuming. They are a sign of her demonic possession. Then Christopher Lee’s celebrated eruption onto a scene–red-eyed and blood-smeared–seconds later, hammers (pardon the unintended pun) home the point. These two are something more, and something less, than human.

In the 1960 “Dracula” sequel “Brides of Dracula” David Peel’s almost-pretty Baron Meinster is completely transformed when we see him flash his fangs. His surface beauty corrupted by the evil lurking within. On the other hand, Martita Hunt as his newly-vampirized mother is ashamed of her fangs and tries concealing them behind a veil. She knows exactly what her son’s evil lifestyle–a lifestyle she initially encouraged–has led them to. On the other hand, Meinster’s two newly-minted “brides” seem almost proud of their fangs. They perhaps had less scruples than the Baroness and thus welcome their new lifestyle. (Certainly it’s hinted that the mousey schoolteacher Gina may have had longings for her fellow-teacher Marianne, the heroine of the piece.)

By “Kiss of the Vampire,” filmed in 1962 but released in the U.S. in 1963, it is made quite clear the Ravna family, for all their surface sophistication and charm, are a pretty depraved lot. When we first glimpse the head of the clan baring his fangs, he looks like an animal. Ravna, his children and his followers are spiritually sick–their decadent lifestyle and quest for sophisticated pleasures have led them to become less-than-human, even while they think they are now more-than-human. Interestingly, the Ravnas don’t sleep in coffins and can venture abroad during the day, so long as the skies are overcast. In fact Dr. Ravna is first glimpsed in the daytime, spying on the stranded honeymooners through his telescope.
Actually I must admit that the Ravna Family are my favorite Hammer vampires. It’s great fun to try to conjure up their backstories. In “Dracula” Valerie Gaunt makes a veiled reference to “the terrible things” the Count does, and in “Brides of Dracula” we learn that young Meinster ran with a wild crowd, one of whom turned him into what he now was. But the Ravnas are a bit of an enigma. We only know that one of Dr. Ravna’s experiments “went wrong,” and he had to leave the capital as a result. Noel Willman’s hawk-visage was as close to Peter Cushing as Hammer was going to get this time out. Assuming that Ravna was some sort of research scientist, we wonder exactly what went wrong. Did he perhaps try doing a blood transfusion on a vampire, or did he simply hang out with a bad crowd? As I noted earlier the Ravnas are far from traditional vampires. They don’t require the sanctuary of their coffins as resting places (did they even die in the traditional sense?) and they can tolerate at least limited daylight. They seem more synthetic vampires–the products of bad science rather than bad living. When the heroine first encounters Ravna in his vampire form he is heard behind his curtained bed making the sounds of a patient in physical distress. Is his vampirism perhaps a disease that is beyond his control? His son Carl seems ever-so-cheerful, so eager to please–yet he can revert to a coldly arrogant Junker as soon as he no longer needs to hide behind a seductive mask. Then there is the daughter Sabena. She seems so polite and in control–ever ready to disapprove of her father’s displays of boorish humor. Is she perhaps the lover of her father–or of the pretty servant girl Tania? Probably as an economy move, we never see Carl and Sabena in vampire mode. Nor do any of the other white-robed members of Ravna’s vampire cult ever display them. Only Ravna and Isobel Black’s Tania were apparently fitted for fangs.

Unfortunately in the later Hammer outings, the fangs tended to become mere make-up–something called for by the script. But in those first Hammer vampire films, I think they functioned admirably as a sign of the transformative power of the evil these characters have embraced.

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