The Vampire and the Ballerina/L’amante del Vampiro (1960)

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)‘Because only l can be master of my world! Only me!’

A group of young dancers arrive in a remote forested region to practice their latest show away from the distractions offered by the bright lights of the city. Unfortunately, there have been a series of mysterious attacks on local women, and the ballerinas finds themselves in increasing danger, especially after some of their group take shelter in a nearby castle…

After the Second World War, it was understandable that it took a little time for European cinema to embrace the dark world of fictional horrors, and Italy was no exception. The groundwork was eventually laid by Riccardo Freda’s ‘I Vampiri’ (1957) and that proved enough of a success to prompt this effort from Renato Polselli. Unfortunately, his thunder was well and truly stolen by Mario Bava’s classic ‘Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan’ (1960), which actually went into production a few months later.

Polselli’s film is truly a mixed bag. On the one hand, we have some truly atmospheric sequences, aided immeasurably by crisp black and white photography, stylish visuals and an emphasis on suspense. There’s some excellent locations, including a real 15th Century castle and a striking landscape around a waterfall. The performances are good too, particularly from the delicious Héléne Remy as she turns slowly to the dark side. Polselli also gives the film an unusual mixture of gothic and contemporary trappings, which almost seems to place the action outside of any definite time period.

Unfortunately, once we get to the more explicit scenes of fangs and crosses, it all becomes rather crude and more than a little corny. If this were a more contemporary film, the suspicion would be that these sequences were reshoots imposed by the studio to make the film more commercial. Similarly, the girls’ rehearsals are more burlesque than ballet and were probably heavily featured in the trailer to appeal to a certain demographic. The problem is neatly summarised by the opening scene, which has some truly creepy moments, but, by revealing too much, immediately robs the story of any significant mystery or room to develop. Having said that, the symbiotic relationship between our two undead leads is fresh and unusual, and gives the conflict a little more of a twist than might have been expected. The final scenes on the castle battlements are also quite memorable.

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)

‘Ouch!’

The majority of the cast and crew were usually found plying their trade in togas with strongmen characters such as ‘Hercules’ and ‘Goliath’. Actor Walter Brandi seemed to enjoy the horror genre, though, particularly the undead, his later career containing roles in ‘The Playgirls and the Vampire’ (1960), ‘Slaughter of the Vampires’ (1964), ‘L’Orgie des Vampires’ (1964), ‘Terror Creatures from the Grave’ (1965) and ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’ (1965).

There are some good elements here, and Polselli undoubtedly had talent. Unfortunately, there’s an unmistakable feeling that, with better and subtler handling, this would have been a much better and far more memorable picture.

Unfortunately, its lack of sophistication leaves us with a flawed result and a sense of what might have been.

Katarsis/Sfida al diavolo (1963)

Katarsis (1963)‘An enormous spider, repulsive, but, at the same time, strangely it inspired confidence in us.’

Three couples out to raise hell end up at a deserted old castle. The old man living there tells them he has sold his soul to the devil, and weird things begin to happen…

Early 1960s Italian no-budget oddity which boasts the presence of the multi-lingual Christopher Lee, marking time between higher profile outings for Hammer Studios. At first glance it appears to be an unusual mash-up between supernatural horror and a crime picture but, by the time the credits have rolled, there’s a suspicion that what we have here is a ‘cut and paste’ job on an unfinished film.

The film opens with a rendezvous at an airport and moves onto the backstreets of Rome, where an attempt is made on the life of small-time crook, Carlo. He survives and gains sanctuary at a local church, where old friend Piero Vida is now the priest. It turns out Carlo’s been trying to blackmail a crime lord from Beirut but the incriminating evidence has been stolen by showgirl Alma Del Rio, who, strangely, seems to be playing herself here. Vida goes to the club and tries to persuade Del Rio to give up the documents by telling her the story of how he became a priest.

These opening scenes also include almost ten minutes of activity at the nightclub. We get couples bickering at the tables (we never see them again), a couple dancing the Charleston and ‘hit’ song ‘They Saw Us’ by ‘Argentinian star Sonia’ who often lip syncs direct to camera, is accompanied by offscreen backing singers and walks off stage as the track begins fading out!  House band ‘I Palatni’ don’t really sell things either, also ‘backing’ Del Rio in her ‘act’, which consists of shuffling about a bit and wriggling her behind. It’s so bad that it actually rivals the routine of ‘International Stars Jeanette and Bob’ in Boris Karloff crime flick ‘Island Monster/Monster of the Island’ (1954), something I would not have thought possible.

Vida’s tale of why he joined the priesthood makes up the bulk of the movie; roughly 55 minutes of the brief 75 minute running time. Here, we see him as one of a group of three couples who like fast cars, booze and beating up random motorists who get in their way. Vida isn’t even the leader of this gang, that honour falling to Mario Zakarti, whose chief lieutenant is failed poet George Ardisson. Instead Vida is the half-baked comic relief. The group end up at a spooky castle on one of their excursions and meet old man Christopher Lee, who promises them riches if they can locate the body of his dead wife and give her a decent burial. The rest of the story is simply taken up by a lot of cobwebs, creeping around the castle passages and hysterical over-acting, particularly from Ardisson.

Katarsis (1963)

The Count had let the housework get out of hand…

The scenes in the castle have a disjointed feel, transitions between them appearing forced, rather than occurring naturally from a developing plot. The probability is that parts of the script were simply never filmed, which would also explain the interminable length of some sequences; the gang’s ‘freak-out’ (with Ardisson on bongos!) being a particular endurance test for the audience.

Although filming was done on location, some of it looks to be taking place on bare studio sets, and the only common link between the framing story and the main narrative is the presence of Vida. It’s also unusual for Lee to have so little screen time, his appearance here little more than an extended cameo.

Obviously, piecing together the production history of an obscure project like this is next to impossible over half a century later. However, it does appear that the film’s release was delayed for two years after the death of the producer. Of course, that could explain a sudden lack of funds and the ‘patchwork’ nature of the finished article.

One for Christopher Lee completists only.

An Angel For Satan (1966)

An_Angel_For_Satan_(1966)‘Don’t you know? I adore violence…’

After a long hot summer, the water level drops in the lake by a remote village and exposes the statue of a beautiful woman. The lord of the local manor invites a young artist to restore it, but the statue comes with a curse, and bad things start to happen…

Atmospheric Euro-Horror from director Camillo Mastrocinque, which suffers from a disappointing resolution. The set-up is nothing very original, but surprisingly persuasive and aided by some unusual and excellent locations. The story opens with the artist crossing the mist-shrouded lake, with nothing else visible but the boat, its occupants and the water. It’s an eerie sequence, heightened by superbly crisp black and white photography from Giuseppe Aquari. For once the concept of an ancient curse doesn’t seem either tired or far-fetched; the locals just black silhouettes on a washed-out beach, their small village an indistinct blur in the background. It’s understated and quite striking. Already it seems that the artist is descending into hell.

Arriving later the same evening is Barbara Steele; heiress to the local estate. The artist can’t take his eyes off her, not just because of the obvious reason, but because she bears such an uncanny resemblance to the statue. The revelation of the inevitable curse, and the fear of the villagers are familiar elements, and quite predictable, but they are rendered with rare conviction and style. The artist falls for Steele, of course, but no sooner has he declared his passions, then her behaviour starts to change. Has she become possessed by the spirit of long-dead ancestor Beatrice?

An_Angel_For_Satan_(1966)

‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall…’

Steele was somewhat typecast in horror roles after her star-making role in Mario Bava’s ‘Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan’ (1960). It’s a shame because she displays real talent in all her roles, never more obviously than here; skilfully conveying the rapid disintegration of a personality due to external forces. It would have been good to see her in a wider range of material, although her presence always brings a stamp of quality.

Here, using her considerable charms, she teases, taunts and manipulates her way into the minds of every man she meets; commanding eternal devotion from the backward gardener after she strips and then beats him with her riding crop for looking at her. Both the local bully and the new school teacher can’t resist her and she seduces her own housemaid in a scene that threatens to fog the camera lens.

All these plot threads converge in a succession of tragedies but, just when it seems we are cranking up to a big finish, the contrived climax arrives to deflate both credibility and chills. It’s hopelessly contrived and rather predictable, revealing perhaps that all the excellence before was purely down to the visuals coupled with Steele’s fully committed performance. It’s a shame because it relegates what could have been a great horror to merely a good one, but still a cut above most of its contemporaries.

Watch it for the atmosphere. Watch it for Steele.

The Slaughter of The Vampires / Curse of the Blood Ghouls (1962)

The Slaughter of the Vampires (1962)‘He wanted her blood… then he wanted her body.’

A count and his young wife throw a lavish party for all their friends to celebrate the renovation of the medieval castle that is their brand new home. What the estate agent neglected to mention is that there’s a vampire sleeping in their wine cellar and he’s about to wake up.

Despite the title(s), this is an old school Dracula tale with a single, romantic bloodsucker threatening the luminous Graziella Granata while her real life husband Walter Brandi remains perfectly oblivious.

This is an impressively mounted Italian horror with atmospheric black and white photography, resolutely gothic architecture and an overblown soundtrack with appropriately thundering classical piano. Unfortunately, what this riff on Stoker doesn’t have is any ideas of its own. If the author was still around, he might have considered some kind of legal action. There’s little blood and proceedings remain stately and restrained throughout.

The Slaughter of the Vampires (1962)

The vampire had spent far too long in the wine cellar.

The real weakness here is Dieter Eppler’s vampire. It’s not the actor’s fault; although he does lack the necessary magnetism, his performance is derailed by some silly ‘white face’ makeup that makes him look ridiculous, rather than sinister. Story development is predictable and things never get all that exciting. What remains are the wonderful sets, the gothic trappings and the lovely Miss Granata, who exudes beauty and charisma.

The only aspect of the story that is any way memorable comes when it transpires that the gardener’s six year old daughter has the talent of a concert pianist. But that may have had something to do with the English dubbing!