A serial killer is stalking the streets of Paris, preying on young women who are left without a drop of blood in their bodies. Naturally, the press dub him ‘The Vampire’ and one investigative journalists risks his career, and his life, to track down the fiend…
In the latter half of the 20th Century, horror films began to diversify somewhat. Not satisfied with just scaring audiences, some filmmakers began tailoring their efforts to reflect contemporary social concerns, and even provide the occasional political critique. Now, it’s kind of hard to imagine that sort of thing was going on in the Italian film industry in the 1920s but, when the fascists came to power, they banned horror films anyway, although their reasoning remains obscure. As a result, ‘I Vampiri’ (1956) was not just the first Italian horror to reach the screen in over 30 years, it was also the first one that had sound!
At first sight, it’s quite an intriguing proposition. Things aren’t as straightforward as your usual Transylvanian bloodsucker running about in a dinner-jacket and cloak, and the plot thickens when a top scientist dies suddenly. Unfortunately, any mystery departs about halfway through the film after some rather too obvious signposting and, after some quick confirmation, it’s just a race to the final credits to see how it all comes out.
Original director Riccardo Freda bailed before the end of the shoot, apparently finding it impossible to meet both the budgetary and scheduling restrictions placed on him by the producers. His duties devolved to 43 year-old cinematographer and SFX technician Mario Bava; who had been working in the industry for almost 20 years but had never directed. Now, of course, he’s celebrated as the stylish, versatile master of films such as horror classic ‘Black Sunday/Mask of the Devil (1960), ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1962), ‘Planet of the Vampires’ (1966), ‘Diabolik’ (1967) and ’Shock’ (1978). Indeed, knowledge of Bava’s later work informs just how great his influence was on this movie; the beautiful compositions of light and shadow, the richly detailed settings, the fluid camera movement and an overall stamp of quality that belies the apparently small budget. All signatures of his later work. Bava was also behind the SFX sequences and they still stand up to scrutiny today; streets ahead of the clumsy techniques that were still being employed in low budget horror 20 or 30 years later.
The other big plus comes with Gianna Maria Canale, who is appropriately regal in the lead, playing the niece of a duchess. She was apparently involved with director Freda at the time and went on to play the Queen of the Amazons in Steve Reeves’ breakout international hit ‘Hercules’ (1958). Paul Muller (‘Journey to Italy’ (1954), ’Vampyros Lesbos’ (1971)) is also good value in an understated performance as a drug addict; even though he is ultimately underused.
Despite all this, the film was not a financial success. Perhaps it was still too soon after the overthrow of the Brownshirts for home grown horror. Anyway, its box-office failure allegedly led to the practice of anglicising actor and director’s names to convince domestic audiences that they were getting Hollywood product. That could be apocryphal, of course, but it would fit with the puzzle of why such an obvious talent as Bava still had to wait another 4 years to get his first solo gig in the director’s chair, and that only coming as part of a deal for picking up the reins on ‘The Giant of Marathon’ (1959) after director Jacques Tourneur went back to Hollywood. But, when he finally got his chance, Bava seized it with both hands and, as they say, the rest was history.