“UNHOLY HANNAH!”--CRYPT OF THE LIVING DEAD
By Dr. Abner Mality
I admit it...I have a crush on vampire chicks. Always...it goes all the way back to the earliest horror movies I saw, like “Brides of Dracula” and “Horror of Dracula”. And let’s not forget the super sexy Vampirella who haunted the Warren black & white horror comics in her red bikini. But I think of all the vampire babes I drool over, I have a special fondness for Hannah, Queen of the Vampires...and the star of the 1973 bloodsucker epic “Crypt of the Living Dead”.
The movie has a strange, torturous history and has been known by several names, including “Young Hannah, Queen of the Vampires”. It also exists in various editions, most of them godawful. I managed to see it on late night TV some time in the early 90’s, when I was already many years into my horror obsession. It was not a good print, being very murky and sometimes hard to even see. But something about this gloomy, atmospheric film stuck with me. And the glacially regal Hannah, played by beautiful Teresa Gimpera, really lodged deep in the reptilian part of my brain. Not only was this vampire girl hot, but there was something overwhelmingly sad and tragic about her that appealed to me.
I also had a copy of it on one of those atrocious Mill Creek 100 DVD collections. The Mill Creek copy was abominable even by their low standards...the formerly color movie was now in black and white! And some night scenes were so totally dark that the action was hard to follow, making it almost like an audiotape instead of a DVD. Thank God...or whatever power looks over old horror movies...that Vinegar Syndrome finally found an old negative of the film and cleaned it up beautifully for a 2K release. This is really the only version of the movie anybody should see...lots of previously obliterated details are revealed, even including the intricate carvings on Hannah’s tomb.
To be honest, the movie can never be described as a masterpiece and its flaws are easy to spot. But atmosphere often overcomes mistakes and this film has atmosphere so thick you can cut it with a knife. It’s a strange co-production between Spanish and American interests, featuring American stars like Andrew Prine and Mark Damon mixed with continental actors. The film is credited with two directors...the Spanish Julio Salvador and the American Ray Danton...and also two writers...Spanish Ricardo Ferrer and American Lois Gibson, with additional screenplay touches by Salvador.
Peter and Chris
The American grindhouse advertising for the movie made it look like an absolute joke, with a silly wolf-headed girl in a bikini jumping out of an open tomb in the poster art and taglines like “Have you ever done it the Transylvanian way?”. The actual movie itself was somber and serious, without a single bit of comedy relief in it (although the over the top mutterings of Abdul the Blind Sailor come close). I know when I first saw it all those years ago, I went into it completely blind, with no idea of what to expect, which is the ideal way to see any movie. It made an impact on me then and it still did when I rewatched the Vinegar Syndrome version a couple of weeks back.
The movie was filmed just outside of Madrid, which is remarkable, because it looks like for all the world, it was actually shot on some lonely Mediterranean island. My understanding is that the bulk of the movie was shot over 3 weeks by Salvador and Danton was brought in to add additional scenes at a somewhat later date. Danton was a former actor who was quite active in the 50’s and early 60’s before switching to directing. Most of his work was in TV.
Well, let’s get ready to head to “Vampire Island” and meet Hannah. Be warned, many spoilers follow…
We begin in the dark of the night in a wind-tossed sea village. An ancient church looms over the scene as we hear monk-like intonations in Latin reverberating. This is coming from the robed figure of Peter (Mark Damon), whom we will get to know better later. He’s got a crazy look in his eyes as he feverishly intones “Oh Hannah! Come and inflame us with such love that would open our eyes, which will never sleep in death!” So we know right away Pete is a looney in the first minutes. The movie has given away a key piece of info off the bat which it could have concealed.
Queen Hannah rises...
A determined figure has entered the rather magnificent church, full of what looks like Greek Orthodox artwork, and heads to the lower reaches of the structure. This is Professor Bolton, who proceeds deeper underground. Suddenly, a wild figure dressed in furs with half his face covered by a leather mask leaps out of the darkness with a yell and causes Bolton to fall into a pit. We never really learn the origin of this “Wild Man”...word has it that dialogue explaining his existence was cut from the final film...but he lives to serve the evil forces stalking the island.
Bolton recovers and finds a hidden stairway going even deeper, where he finds the imposing marble tomb of Hannah, Queen of the Vampires, who has rested within for 700 years. As he kneels to read the inscription on the tomb, Peter comes up behind him and strangles him with a garrote. The Wild Man appears and together the two put Bolton’s body underneath the tomb, which is elevated on some pylons. In a gruesome scene, the pylons are knocked away, leaving Bolton’s body to be crushed and his head to be decapitated! In a further scene of horror, the Wild Man holds up the head by its hair and chortles in glee! This is a good jolting start to the movie, even if we already know Peter is the bad guy.
Next we see the arrival of a boat to the island. This is bearing Chris Bolton, son of the late Professor, who has come to learn more about the death of his father and maybe finish some of the Professor’s business. Chris is played by Andrew Prine, who was in his busiest period when “Crypt of the Living Dead” was filmed. Prine always gave an intense performance and he does so here, but he probably found it a bit of a switch to be playing the hero this time around. Usually he played a deranged whacko, like “Simon, King of the Witches” or the berserk misogynist of “Barn of the Naked Dead”.
Chris is greeted warmly by Peter and it’s obvious the two are old friends. Pretty ironic, considering what we already know about Peter. However, everybody else on the island gives Chris a very cold shoulder. I remember Gimli’s line from “Lord of the Rings”: “You’d find more cheer in a graveyard.” That definitely ran through my mind on seeing the reception Chris gets from the fishermen here. There’s a cold and grim atmosphere immediately established, with this windswept island exuding a feel of gloom. Although filmed in Spain, the island (which is never named) really seems like something off the coast of Turkey or maybe Malta. All of the natives have Middle Eastern names.
The gloomy Abdul
We also meet Peter’s winsome sister Mary, who is a schoolteacher on the island. She’s played by Patty Shepherd, a familiar face in Euro horror cinema, best known for playing “The Vampire Woman” in “The Wolfman Vs. The Vampire Woman”. She also gives Chris a pretty frosty reception and Chris is not shy about voicing his dislike of the island and its inhabitants.
Peter takes Chris to the tomb of Hannah, where Prof. Bolton’s crushed body is still beneath the collapsed structure. Chris intends to do whatever it takes to raise the sepulcher and free his father’s body. This brings the immediate dismay of the natives, especially old blind sailor Abdul Hamid, who is full of fear that Hannah will be brought to life and vampires will once again stalk the island. Played by Frank Brana, Abdul is almost amusing with his constant warnings of doom and gloom. Chris is disgusted by the superstitions of the fishermen.
We learn more about Hannah and her history on the island. 700 years ago, French crusaders led by King Louis VII were forced to land on the island due to a storm.Accompanying Louis was his beautiful young bride Hannah. The island was already infested with vampires and the crusaders started to succumb to the bloodsuckers immediately. Finally, the crusaders fought back with ferocity and killed every vampire they could find, including members of their own party that were infected. But one vampire that Louis could not bring himself to kill was Hannah. Instead of staking her, decapitating the body and burning the remains, he instead entombed her alive in her magnificent tomb. The story of the tragedy was inscribed upon the tomb’s walls.
Even 700 years later, the natives still fear the curse of vampirism and possibility of Hannah rising from her tomb. Chris laughs the superstitions off. He pays the poor fishermen enough that some of them will help him raise the tomb. They start the project and at one point when they are lifting the sepulcher, the lid of Hannah’s crypt is partially opened. Chris gets a good look at what’s inside and is astonished. Instead of a moldering pile of bones, he sees instead a beautiful blonde with a crown resting in what seems to be peaceful slumber. This is Hannah and boy, is she HOT! Teresa Gimpera, who doesn’t say a word in the whole movie, is a great choice to play the vampire queen.
It isn’t long before the blonde bloodsucker escapes the confines of her tomb. After 700 years, she is rarin’ to go. But in an unusual instance of horror film logic, she is very weak after her imprisonment and needs to gradually restore her strength. She transforms into a green mist and once out in the open air, into a white wolf. Like a hungry wolf, her immediate instinct is to find food. Her first victim is Dorry, the beloved dog of glum Abdul Hamid, the blind sailor. From there, she will gradually move up to human beings and the nameless island will soon be what it was all those centuries ago...the domain of the vampire!
This is pretty much exactly what Abdul Hamid tells the nervous townsfolk at a meeting. Among other deliciously dour dialogue, he delivers this message: “You let Hannah loose! Just give her a couple more days to get back her strength. Vampire Island it was...and will be again!”
Chris is still relentlessly skeptical and continues to berate the natives as superstitious bumpkins. One would think that after seeing Hannah’s perfectly preserved body and seeing Dorry’s bloodless corpse, he would be at least a little bit open to the possibility. But like father, like son…
When humans start showing up drained of blood, Chris is forced to admit the truth: a vampire stalks the island. Also, the Wild Man seems to be doing her bidding and he has made Chris his target. One night he gruesomely hangs Prof. Bolton’s decapitated head in Chris’ bungalow, leading to a chase. The Wild Man gets away, but when Chris gets back to his quarters, the head is gone.
The sailor Adnan is the first man to fall victim to Hannah’s bloodlust. In a good scene, he returns to prey upon his own sons and begs them to kill him before he strikes them down.
With all the mayhem going down on the island, Chris still finds time to fall in love with Mary, once the ice between them thaws out. As they make love, an unseen Peter watches them with a strange light in his eyes that bodes ill for the couple.
When Chris finally sees the ghostly Hannah stalking the night with his own eyes, he goes all in on vampires and reverses course completely. He tries to organize the distrustful natives into a force that will hunt down and kill the vampire queen. Natives are armed with torches and stakes and the mystic herb dogbane is used to help keep the vampires at bay.
Ultimately, Peter flips out completely and kidnaps his own sister, intending to sacrifice her to Hannah in the hopes she will make him a vampire consort. After battling the Wild Man, Chris finally figures out just how round the bend his good buddy is and a huge confrontation takes place,where Chris is forced to put an end to his former friend turned fiend.
Hannah herself is now hunted down like an animal and is confronted by an army of natives with torches. On the edge of a cliff, Chris and Hannah fight each other and the Vampire Queen is set on fire, hurtling over the cliff and landing like a flaming comet far below.
Horribly, this is not the end for Hannah. She still lives but the flames and fall have turned her into a hideously disfigured creature. She sobs piteously in reaction to her new state but still lashes out in inhuman fury as a distorted gabbling sound fills the soundtrack. Mercifully, Chris finally thrusts a stake in her heart and the strange, sad journey of the 700 year old vampire comes to an end. Or does it? All I will say is the last minute of the film may be the most chilling part of the movie.
In most movies involving a female vampire, there’s an obvious sexual attraction to the undead creature. In “Crypt of the Living Dead”, it’s more up front than usual because Hannah is undeniably attractive even when she’s still trapped silently in her tomb. But the thing that struck me differently about Hannah’s case is that there is a palpable sadness and sympathy for her. She never asked for what happened to her. To be locked up alive inside a marble tomb for 700 years by your own husband is a dreadful fate. When Hannah awakens, it’s to a world completely different than the one she remembers. Everybody she knew is long dead. She’s possessed by an animal hunger beyond her control. And almost from the beginning of her resurrection, she’s hunted down remorselessly as if she was the wolf whose form she takes.
Hannah remains silent and never speaks during the movie. The first noise she makes is the pitiable sobbing once she realizes she’s been burned and mutilated by the vampire hunters. In that moment, I felt an overwhelming sympathy for her. It’s to Andrew Prine’s credit that he also seems to wordlessly share that feeling even as he grants Hannah’s release with a stake in the heart. It’s a powerful moment and I can’t think of anything quite like it in any other vampire film. As cheap and sometimes threadbare as the movie is, it’s no small thing to create a feeling like this.
I also want to give a shout out to Mark Damon, who has a smouldering madness as Peter. The contrast between the friendly, helpful Peter and the crazy Latin-spouting madman who strangles his boss and prepares to sacrifice his own sister to dark powers is jarring. Here’s a bit from a wild soliloquy he gives trying to explain his past: “I dropped out. I mean I tried every scene in the book and then some. You name it, I did it. I took uppers and downers and inners and outers until I was blown out, spaced out, beat up, shot up. And I tripped. And I ripped. I mean, I shot everything but aspirin. I blew my house down.” That ranks with the great drug speeches of the 60’s and 70’s and Damon, an underrated actor, does it justice.
So despite the warts on it (and there are plenty), I find “Crypt of the Living Dead” to be quite a nifty piece of vampire cinema. If you go into it without having unrealistic expectations, chances are that you, too, will be entertained by the story of sad and sexy Hannah...