I Vampiri (1956)
78 min, B&W, Italian (English subtitles)
Review © 2007 Branislav L. SlantchevFor some unfathomable reason, Image includes this in their "Mario Bava Collection" even though Mario was "only" the cinematographer and it is impossible to figure out which segments he directed when he had to finish the film after Freda quit two days before shooting was supposed to end. According to my Bava references it is very likely that he only had some exterior shots to do, so the credit for the film (or blame) has to go mostly to Freda.
|Gothic expressionism: shadows and distorted interiors||This mascara makes you look too alive|
This is not to say that the cinematography is something to sneeze at, and this refers not just to the instantly recognizable Bava play with lighting and shadows but also to his readily identifiable penchant for filming expressive interiors at unusual angles. In fact, if Argento is famous for giving architecture a prominent role in his movies, he must thank the maestro who started doing it even before directing. The film practically oozes atmosphere and if the Gothic vampire did not exist, it would have to be invented just to put her in this superb set design.
|No use denying it, inspector, you LOVE Prada||Do you think this hairdo makes me look fat?|
If any sneezing is to be done, it would have to be at the script but mostly at what some hacks call acting and I call hamming your way through your lines to get that paycheck that supplements your justly deserved day job tending tables. The worst offender was the male lead, Dario Michaelis, whose portrayal of the intrepid muckraker Pierre Lantin relates to acting as chopping wood with a power saw relates to origami. Only once was he upstaged by an even more incompetent buffoon, and this was in a scene with his editor Mr Bourgeois where Charles Fawcett displayed such remarkable determination to torture pieces of paper with his pen that one may well have suspected him of anti-pulp extremism. Or maybe he was just trying to convey what he could not remember from the dialogue with expressive neck gyrations, I am not sure.
|Yes, I stalk fresh coeds for a living. It's called journalism.||According to Lonely Planet, this apartment is a cozy retreat for psychotic addicts|
Singling out the lead should in no way leave one with the impression that the rest of the cast somehow sunk to a much shallower level, if I am allowed the abuse of this metaphor. They all toil valiantly somewhere near the bottom of the cinematic ocean, where only the occasional glimmer of artificial light can dispel the general gloom. In this case, every single cast member seems to have done his or her damnedest to ensure that this film can never be evaluated as anything other than a low-B grade production. It's really a pity because Bava's inspired work should have turned this into a memorable outing.
|The doctor will "see" you now||Doctor Julien 'Welding is my Passion' du Grand|
As it is, the only memorable things about the film are, in no particular order,
- The fake "location" shots of Paris shot on location in a studio with the cunning use of false backdrops that apparently fooled Parisians but today are unlikely to fool anyone with a TV that can actually show an image;
- Bava's "aging" and "reverse-aging" special effect that achieves a remarkable result in a continuous shot. It's a trick that relies on how black and white photography records color in different light. He would go on to use this with the same startling success on Barbara Steele in the much more famous Black Sunday.
- The Gothic atmosphere.
- The fact that many consider this the first Italian horror film.
- The Gothic atmosphere.
- Laundry list of things that have now become cliches in horror: (a) variant of the Bathory legend, (b) a not entirely sane genius doctor with a disfigured and possibly demented (or at least quite stupid) assistant, (c) a black-gloved killer, (d) an unhealthy tendency to hang around in dank crypts and dabble in cenotaph decoration, (e) incredibly incompetent police, (f) unbelievably lucky reporter who just happens to be in the midst of it all, and (g) female victims, preferably lots of them.
- Did I mention the Gothic atmosphere?
|He tripped on that cord around his neck, we swear||Just one more cadaver and I will know the secret Pepsi formula|
The story begins with fishing. Well, sort of, they do fish out a woman's body from the Seine. This turns out the be the latest victim (of same blood type as previous) in what has developed into a minor killing spree of someone who somehow drains the poor women of the red juice. No, not the cranberry one. What might such a creature be? A vampire, right? Wrong. It's just a woman who needs regular blood transfusion but whose subscription to the local blood bank has expired. She does not even drink it, as it turns out. It's all done scientifically, with catheters, leukoreduction, irradiation of the donated blood, and citomegaloviral screening, all under proper medical supervision by highly qualified personnel. (In fact the CMV screening is an overkill because, as every schoolboy knows, leukoreduction removes the white blood cells, and hence the virus that infects only those.) At any rate, there is no sucking, drinking, or bathing when it comes to blood, which makes this horror film pretty tame by any vampiric standard.
|Practically drips with Gothic ambient||Why did I ever regain consciousness?|
There's, of course, a suitably mad doctor (Antoine Balpetre) with an appropriately disfigured assistant (Renato Tontini) who somehow manages not to trip on his own lab coat very often. Maybe the doctor isn't going to get the Nobel, but he does know how to keep his welding goggles clean, as attested by the scenes in which he wears them during operation, interrogation, and witnessing of murder. He is in love with an old hag who is a duchess and owns a very large, very empty, and possibly quite moldy old castle which does not even look like a decent chateau. But it would make your neighborhood Gothgirl smack her black lips with hungry gusto seeing that it is chock-full of Gothic paraphernalia such as candles, draperies that always seem to flutter menacingly, a rich collection of well-scrubbed skulls, moth-eaten tapestries, candelabra, dust, cobwebs, and uncovered stone floors. Everything that reminds one of a serious need of a maid.
|The Countess: Guilty of Dancing while Sucking Blood||Two proles out of place at a decadent aristocrat's mansion|
But the doctor is not lusting after the riches of the old hag. He's lusting after the old hag. Now, I did say that the doc was as crazy as a lunatic after licking a Monkey Frog but he's not a pervert (apart from all arranging the kidnap and murder of nubile women, that is). For it turns out that the old hag is not old at all. And not much of a hag either. In fact, she's positively young and beautiful. Of course, that's why she needs all this blood. She's so young that she passes herself off as her own niece Giselle (Gianna Maria Canale). She also would have been damn hot if she wasn't so damn needy of attention of the one man who cannot stand her. Yes, you guessed it, he's our favorite piece of animated lumber, Pierre "I Piss on Journalistic Integrity" Lantin.
|Is there space for my breasts on this balcony?||Smoking makes your skin soft and your looks forever young|
Why he cannot stand her is never made clear although some tantalizing hints come through. Apparently, he hates the Countess for ruining his mother out of her love for his father that the latter had scorned. Did you catch this? Pierre "Why Not Combine Work with Pleasure" Lantin rejects the pretty Giselle because her aunt made his mom miserable. Of course, we know Giselle is the aunt, and it really gets weird because now she lusts after Pierre just like she had done after his dad, for the two apparently are spit-polished images of each other, and as we all know eternal love is skin-deep. So this Giselle/Countess pursues Pierre so relentlessly, that she barely notices how she has to kill his colleague who tries to prove his love for her by the time-honored tradition of scaling the castle wall and breaking into her room afterhours with only gentlemanly intentions.
|And this is what happens when you quit smoking||Gratuitous shot of the often unconscious Wandisa Guida|
The entire plot revolves around Giselle pining for Pierre while compelling the Doctor to give her an escalating tally of fresh women to keep her young so she can pine for Pierre some more. The doctor's hireling Joseph (Paul Muller) turns out to be quite the undependable victim-procurer, which is what one would expect from a drug addict, which is how the doc pays for his services, so he has only himself to blame. Of course, the evil quartet screws up by kidnapping Pierre's love interest, the fresh coed Lorrette (Wandisa Guida) who spends most of her time drugged, sleeping, fainting, screaming, or any combination of those that does not involve escaping. Naturally, Pierre finally flies off the handle (actually flies even further off the handle compared to his habitual being off the handle) and after some incredibly tacky dialogue Giselle bares her soul in front of the police inspector, which gets her dead. Then everybody who was not killed gets to live happily ever after.
|Check out that bold angle on Dario Michaelis' torso||The Global Undead Underground's Interior Design Award of the Year|
The Image DVD presents the film in its OAR of 2.35:1 but the video is not anamorphic. Although not bad, the transfer is average at best: contrast are boosted to ridiculous levels, washing out the highlights, so we are often treated to beautiful totally white spots and obvious edges. There is noticeable grain, partly from the enhancement and partly from compression, and there are disconcerting scratches and dust throughout. At least the film comes with an Italian soundtrack (mono, it's a 1956 film, damnit) with very good optional English subtitles. The extras include trailers, talent files for Freda and Bava, and a stills gallery. The insert essay by Tim Lucas is unnecessary since every Bava fan should own his book.
January 6, 2007