Satanic Rhapsody/Rapsodia satanica (1915)

‘Locked up in the castle of illusion, dawn languished in the disconsolate autumn of the heart.’

An elderly Countess longs for the days of her carefree youth. The devil appears and grants her wish, provided she does not fall in love. She eagerly embraces high society’s party scene, but her meeting with two brothers proves to be fateful…

Another riff on a familiar tale as Lyda Borelli makes a deal with the devil under the watchful eye of director Nino Oxilia. This silent Italian production was based on poems by Fausto Maria Martini and runs just over 40 minutes, although some sources credit a length of just under an hour.

Social gatherings are a nightmare for the elderly Contessa Alba d’Oltrevita (Borelli) as she mourns the loss of her youth. So, it’s little surprise that she’s keen to accept an offer of rejuvenation from Mephisto (Ugo Bazzini) when he steps down out of a family portrait. There’s one caveat: the deal is off if she falls in love. This condition isn’t an issue as the fun-loving Borelli is only interested in having a good time, flirting with eligible men and leading them on before throwing them aside.

However, not all of her prospective beaus want to play her games, particularly brothers Tristano (Andrea Habay) and Sergio (Giovanni Cini). Both fall in love with her, and, aware of the fact, she finds flutters hither and thither through the party scene, playing one off against the other. However, the brothers have a strong bond, and instead of becoming rivals, Cini steps aside in favour of Habay. Then, Borelli rejects him, and the prospective suitor prepares to kill himself.

Although most famous as the Germanic legend of Faust, deals with the devil are rooted in the folklore of most every culture on Earth. The first historical record of the tale dates from the 6th Century when Theophilus of Adana supposedly sought Satan’s help to acquire a position as a bishop in the Byzantine Empire. The basics were already present and correct; the selfish ambition, the temptation, the repentance, the absolution and, finally, the payment of the ultimate price. The legend was an enormous favourite with early filmmakers, too, most notably French pioneer Georges Méliès, who shot multiple versions of the story.

Given the overfamiliarity of the tale, even by 1915, a new approach was clearly necessary. However, that’s what’s completely absent here. Instead of the doomed romance of Faust and Marguerite, we have the half-hearted canoodling of Borelli and Habay, as she floats through drawing rooms in shimmering dresses, and he broods heroically in corners, looking a bit miffed. Additionally, scenes of Borelli circulating amongst party guests exchanging (probably) bitchy small talk don’t really resonate in the silent medium.

The visual presentation needs to pick up the slack in the absence of an exciting story, but these aren’t particularly distinctive. Oxilia does deliver some variation in his shots and only lets the camera dwindle for a short time without an edit, but the work is still mainly undistinguished. There’s a little coloured stencilling here and there, mainly of wardrobe items, with Bazzini draped in a dark scarlet robe and Borelli favouring the odd touch of a watery green or gold.

The performances are very much of their time, although the cast avoids some of the worst excesses and over-emoting of the era. The best moment of the film is when Bazzini peeks covertly through the leaves of some houseplants, his face dominated by his glaring eyes, Spock brows and a Tory smile. But the real problem is the thin plot, which could easily be condensed into one of those early, short ‘trick films’ based on the tale.

The film’s release was delayed for two years, which explains why some sources list it with a 1917 date. The delay was not due to concern about the content or the ongoing war in Europe but instead its musical score. In a major coup, the producers had hired prestigious composer Pietro Mascagni to provide it, but the work took him two years to complete. It’s a mark of the high regard in which he was held that the producers were prepared to wait for that length of time rather than release the film without it.

Oxilia was initially known as a playwright whose 1909 work ‘Good-bye Youth’, written in collaboration with Sandro Camasio, was filmed on several occasions. He began directing films in 1913 and became known for ‘diva films’, a short-lived trend of projects designed to showcase leading actresses in tragic, emotional roles. Given that Borelli is rarely offscreen here, it’s fair to assume this was one such film. Sadly, a mere eight weeks after its release, Oxilla was killed in action in the mountains of North-East Italy, another casualty of the ‘War to End Wars.’

A drab enterprise, highly derivative and of little interest to any bar silent film enthusiasts.

The Double/La controfigura (1971)

The sea is the colour of the sea, and the sky is the colour of the sky.’

A handsome man is shot in an underground parking garage. As he lies on the ground injured, his thoughts flashback to the events that brought him there. It all began on a beach holiday with his new, young wife…

More psychological drama than horror thriller, director Romolo Guerrieri delivers an unusual Giallo based on a novel of the same name by Libero Bigiaretti. A cast of familiar faces people the fractured narrative as Italian cinema takes another potshot at the empty, amoral lives of the idle rich.

Bleeding out on the concrete isn’t the way Giovanni (Jean Sorel) had planned to spend his day. Gunned down by the elderly Professor Bergamo (Antonio Pierfederici), his recent past starts flashing before his eyes. Where has he seen the old man before? His thoughts return to a beach in Morocco and time spent frolicking in the sand with his blonde wife, Lucia (Ewa Aulin). The couple only recently married, and the older Sorel is protective of his new bride, unhappy that she is interested in beach bum Eddie Kennan (Sergio Doria). It’s soon clear that Aulin isn’t the sharpest tool in the box, but her seeming flirtatious nature is little more than youthful high spirits. However, the jealous Sorel can’t see it that way.

Meantime, there’s more trouble on the horizon for our not-so lovable hero. Despite an apparent talent for architecture and a good education, he’s preferred living off his family’s money to applying himself to the world of work. Unfortunately, economic conditions are putting the squeeze on the family business. His brother (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) suggests that he takes a more active role in affairs, but, of course, Sorel isn’t very interested.

His life begins unravelling further when thanks to his new mother-in-law, Nora (Lucia Bosè). No, it’s not the usual problem with parental disapproval, but more to do with the fact that he’d much rather sleep with her than her daughter. When Bosè joins them on their Moroccan retreat, his desire soon escalates into an obsession, especially when she starts spending time with beach boy Doria. It all culminates in a sexual assault, although Sorel finds himself unable to perform at the crucial moment. Yes, this is one screwed-up dude!

Some commentators have advanced the opinion that any movie made in Italy during the early 1970s that features murder is categorised as a Giallo film by default. There is some merit to this opinion, and it certainly could be advanced in this case. There is no mysterious killer whose flashing knife provides a quickly escalating body count or any element of ‘whodunnit’; director Guerrieri shows us the shooter in the opening scene. There is no ambiguity regarding the culprit, only his place in Sorel’s story and the motivation for his crimes.

Director Guerrieri presents this tale as a series of disjointed puzzle pieces, and it is to his credit that he keeps a firm hand on the narrative so it never becomes confusing. Particularly necessary when we’re seeing through the eyes of a storyteller whose memories are jumbled with the occasional fantasy. Ultimately, it’s more of a character study than a mystery, delving deep into the troubled mind of a fully committed narcissist. Giovanni is a man who sees the world, and everyone in it, only in terms directly related to himself and his desires. It’s has a similar feel to ‘A Rather Complicated Girl (1969), which also starred Sorel in the principal role.

The film’s major problem is its lack of plot and incident. How the puzzle pieces fall into place at the end has a pleasing irony, but it all takes place rather suddenly with little foreshadowing beyond that opening scene. The main character’s lack of backstory is also a problem. It’s perhaps understandable that Guerrieri wanted to avoid such familiar tropes as childhood trauma or repressed memories. However, there’s no suggestion of anything that has formed Sorel’s dysfunctional personality other than the ease of a life cushioned by inherited wealth, and that seems a little simplistic and shallow.

There’s also the criminal waste of supporting actors Silvano Tranquilli and Marilù Tolo, who play friends who join Sorel and Awlin on their summer break. Yes, it’s nice to see Tranquilli as something other than a cop, but the script gives neither actor any material to use. It’s a particular shame for Tolo, who still manages to demonstrate once again that she can communicate more with her eyes than many actors can do with pages of dialogue. The writing also does Awlin very few favours, saddling her with an underwritten ‘barbie doll’ role and, it’s a credit to her ability that she brings some nuance to it.

This is Sorel’s show, though, and Giallo’s favourite poster boy gives another assured turn. Equally assured in more sympathetic or more ambiguous roles, the handsome Frenchman has enjoyed a long screen career beginning in the late 1950s. He first teamed up with director Guerrieri on ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah/Il dolce corpo di Deborah’ (1968), a film that proved very important in popularising the Giallo, as the casting of Hollywood star Caroll Baker helped sell it to lucrative American markets. Similar projects followed for the actor, including ‘One On Top of the Other/Perversion Story’ (1969), ‘A Quiet Place To Kill/Paranoia’ (1970) and ‘In The Eye of the Hurricane/El Ojo del huracán’ (1971). He worked consistently through the decades since and became a familiar face on the French small screen in the 1980s and 1990s with frequent appearances in made for television films and mini-series.

A different type of Giallo with some good qualities that falls a little short in the story department.

Macabre/Vjale AI Vacio/Journey To Emptiness/The Invisible Assassin/Shadow of Death (1969)

Macabre/Vjale AI Vacio/Journey To Emptiness/The Invisible Assassin/Shadow of Death (1969)‘In medicine, it is called a para-logic ultra-inhibition.’

An unhappily married woman is having an affair with her husband’s twin brother. Then a face from her past shows up with blackmail on his mind. Rather than pay up, the lovers decide to turn the situation to their advantage…

Serviceable, but ultimately fairly absurd, Giallo thriller from director Javier Seto who co-wrote the screenplay, and also has a partial credit for the original story. Initially, it’s an intriguing setup with many possibilities, but the finished film resembles nothing so much an extended television episode crafted for a suspense/mystery anthology show. Perhaps it would have been better presented in that format and length.

Young wife Denise (Teresa Gimpera) has a problem. She’s tired of small-town life with successful, but dull, businessman John (Larry Ward) and longs for glamour, excitement and the bright lights of Paris. An affair with John’s twin brother, Peter (Ward, again) isn’t really helping too much and the two long to be free of John’s control. Their plotting has come to little, however, until opportunity knocks in the form of Gert Muller (Giacomo Rossi Stuart). He’s an old flame from Gimpera’s murky past and demands money to keep quiet about what he knows. So, our two lovebirds put a long considered plan into action, taking advantage of both Peter’s job as a druggist working for John and the latter’s epileptic condition.

Inducing a seizure and keeping John under wraps for a couple of days, allows Peter to impersonate his brother. In that guise, he sleeps with his own occasional girlfriend Annie (Silvana Venturelli), and rendezvous with Rossi Stuart at the money drop as if by accident. Afterwards, he and Gimpera use a mixture of drugs, electro-shock therapy and re-enactments to convince John that it was he who did these things. Later on, when he comes out of his stupor, he comes to believe he has killed Rossi Stuart, and the scene is set for a long-term committal to an institution for the insane, leaving Peter to step into his brother’s financial shoes.

Macabre/Vjale AI Vacio/Journey To Emptiness/The Invisible Assassin/Shadow of Death (1969)

‘We are not singing ‘I Got You Babe’ again…’

Yes, the premise is a little hard to swallow. Apparently, Peter is au fait with brainwashing techniques because he saw them practised in Vietnam, but that does seem a little too pat as we’re given no further information on his experiences. Also, the final act finds credibility taking a powder as the story lurches across the thin line between the implausible and the unbelievable. The tight focus on the lead characters also gives events a very small-scale feel; sure, a couple of doctors are consulted, and the police hang around a bit, but they hardly get much of a look-in. On the bright side, Gimpera does make an excellent, cold as ice femme fatale, although Ward is merely adequate in his dual role.

Ward was an American actor who worked mostly in TV; initially in Westerns, including playing the lead on short-lived 1960s series The Dakotas’. As the decade progressed, he diversified, appearing on shows such as ‘Lost In Space’, ‘I-Spy’, ‘The Fugitive ‘, ‘The Outer Limits’, ‘The Time Tunnel’, ‘The Invaders’ and many more. In the late 1960s, he picked up a few roles in Italian films, mostly Westerns, before moving back into US TV in the 1970s. He also wrote and starred in poorly-regarded Pilipino horror ‘The Deathhead Virgin’ (1974). Gimpera was still active in 2016 after a long history of credits ranging from Jess Franco’s feeble Eurospy ‘Larry, the Inscrutable’ (1967) to a lead role in Victor Erice’s acclaimed arthouse picture ‘The Spirit of The Beehive’ (1973), a film which Guillermo Del Toro has acknowledged as a major influence on his work.

Macabre/Vjale AI Vacio/Journey To Emptiness/The Invisible Assassin/Shadow of Death (1969)

‘For that fashion sense, you deserve to die…’

Rossi Stuart’s time on the big screen began with biblical epics, sword and sandal films and Westerns before he appeared opposite Vincent Price in ‘The Last Man On Earth’ (1964). Work with horror maestro Mario Bava followed in ‘Knives of the Avenger’ (1966) and ‘Kill, Baby… Kill’ (1966) before Eurospy ‘The Big Blackout’ (1966), and a couple of appearances as heroic Commander Rod Jackson in space operas directed by Antonio Margheriti. The next decade brought a number of other Giallo outings, including ‘The Weekend Murders’ (1970) and ‘The Crimes of the Black Cat’ (1972). However, by the end of the decade, he had been demoted to material such as Alfonso Brescia’s dire ‘Star Wars’ (1977) rip-off ‘War of the Robots’ (1977). He remained active until the late 1980s and died in 1994.

A middling Giallo thriller that provides an acceptable level of entertainment but requires some serious suspension of disbelief in the final stages. And as for what a couple of the film’s English titles are supposed to mean…well, your guess is as good as mine.

Death Knocks Twice/La morte bussa due volte/Blonde Bait for the Murderer/Hard Women/The Blonde Connection (1969)

Death Knocks Twice/La morte bussa due volte / Blonde Bait for the Murderer / Hard Women / The Blonde Connection (1969)‘Our annexe is used for unusual guests and their extravagant desires.’

A young blonde is found strangled on a moonlit beach, and her priceless necklace is missing. With the police at a loss, her husband turns to a small private detective agency to bring the murderer to justice…

Unfocused meander through some well-worn mystery tropes in this Italian Giallo from director Harald Philipp, who doesn’t seem to have a sufficient grasp of the various elements to connect them in a satisfying manner. There’s the ‘cookie-cutter’ whodunnit puzzle, the hunt for the valuable jewel, feuding mobsters, and a hero who comes over as a cut-price James Bond.

Moonlight washes the empty beach where handsome young artist Francesco Villaverde (Fabio Testi) frolics with beautiful blonde Lois Simmons (Femi Benussi). Little do they know that they’re being watched by handyman Riccardo (Mario Brega) who seems to be enjoying the show. But when things start to get really interesting, Testi has some kind of a psychotic episode, and Benussi is found dead in the sand shortly afterwards.

Benussi’s older husband, Mr Simmonds (Renato Baldini) engages local P.I. Pepe (Leon Askin) after the police fail to find the killer (and barely appear in the movie at all). Askin can’t do it alone though and convinces smooth American operator Bob Martin (Dean Reed) to help. This doesn’t sit well with Reed’s girlfriend Ellen (Ini Assmann) who thought they were going back to the States to get hitched. So he brings her along on the job instead, which turns out to be a shrewd tactical move.

Death Knocks Twice/La morte bussa due volte / Blonde Bait for the Murderer / Hard Women / The Blonde Connection (1969)

‘You really need to get some more bling if you want to be a successful pimp.’

You see, Askin and Reed have already pegged Testi as the likely culprit, mainly because he’s painted a nude of the murdered girl and the picture includes the missing necklace. It’s a mystery why the police didn’t tag him as ‘a person of interest’, especially considering his past predisposition to violence towards women and time spent in a mental hospital. Still, I guess they had good reason to rule him out. Reed then has Askin and Assmann pose as father and daughter and ensures that she and Testi meet and get close. What a guy! Pimping out his girlfriend to a psychotic killer while he gets handsy with the local girls working the mob-fronted hotel ‘The Sun and Sea’. Of course, that’s all part of his investigation and completely necessary.

This dubious boarding establishment is run by Charley Hemman (Werner Peters) and Amato Locatelli (Riccardo Garrone), who run crooked gambling on the ‘Estrella’ floating just offshore, as well as letting their girls roll drunks in the bar. But they have a problem; a jumbo loan due to mobster Ferretti, who sends his wife Sophia (Anita Ekberg) and enforcer the Professor (Adolfo Celi) to collect.

Death Knocks Twice/La morte bussa due volte / Blonde Bait for the Murderer / Hard Women / The Blonde Connection (1969)

‘You do know your boyfriend’s an absolute dick, don’t you?’

The original release of this film is listed as having a running time of 96 minutes. That accounts to some extent for the disjointed feel the film has now because almost 20 minutes of footage is missing in the versions currently available. These missing scenes might have helped establish one of these story threads as the primary focus. As it plays now, the initial murder investigation begins taking a back seat to the mob-related intrigue before the two join rather clumsily for the climax.

Without giving too much away, Peters and Garrone decide to avoid paying back the mob loan by having Testi and maneater Ekberg meet. Hopefully, bedroom antics and murder will follow. How they can be sure that Testi is the killer and how this outcome would get them out of hock with an organised crime syndicate anyway is a bit obscure, but hey! At least it’s a plan. Meanwhile, Reed makes instant friends with Peters’ vicious attack dog, Fritz, after a dip in the pool. I guess the canine recognises a nice bloke when he meets one. This looks like it’s going to be vital at the finish, but then it isn’t. Sure, Fritz the Wonder Dog lends a helpful paw, but I think Reed would have coped on his own.

Death Knocks Twice/La morte bussa due volte / Blonde Bait for the Murderer / Hard Women / The Blonde Connection (1969)

‘Can I interest you in a raspberry ripple?’

What would make a far more interesting film than this is the story of Reed’s life. After first training as an actor, he signed to Capitol Records in 1958 as a singer, being promoted to the teenage market. Although never very successful on home turf he was a big hit in South America and, while on tour there in the early 1960s developed a radical political philosophy that had him tagged back home as ‘Red Elvis.’ Rather than return to the U.S., he remained in Argentina until a change of government saw him deported, and he relocated to Europe, spending a lot of time in East Germany. His records continued to sell, and he was immensely popular in the Soviet Union where he also toured.

Reed was a vocal opponent of American foreign policy, but never renounced his U.S. citizenship and continued to file the necessary tax returns. An appearance on CBS’ ’60 Minutes’ in 1986 provoked hate mail when he compared U.S. President Ronald Reagan to Josef Stalin. Six weeks afterwards, Reed was found dead near his home in East Berlin. The official verdict was accidental drowning, but suicide was suspected because of problems with his third marriage. A suicide note was uncovered after German reunification in 1990, but members of his family still believe that he was murdered. A documentary in 2004 also floated the possibilities that he was working for the KGB, the Stasi or the CIA.

A muddled and clumsy Giallo that will appeal only to completists. The original cut probably solves some of its issues, but it’s hard to believe that it would result in a very significant improvement.

Killer Without A Face/Assassino senza volto (1968)

Assassino senza volto (1968)‘There is an abundance of spirit here; you will find it hard to accommodate yours!’

A young architect gets a commission to remodel a rundown castle but when he arrives, finds the resident noble family behaving oddly. The lady of the house is prone to sleepwalking with a loaded gun and lapses of memory. Her condition seems to have worsened since her cousin fell to her death from the battlements…

Clumsy and slightly muddled black and white Giallo from writer-director Angelo Dorigo, who had already tackled similar material with the underwhelming ‘A… For Assassin’ (1966). Unfortunately, the second time around, there is little evidence of improvement, and he delivers another generally unsatisfying experience.

The Lady Barbara McDonald (Mara Berni) is not in a good place. After her cousin Mary (Anita Todesco) takes a header off the roof one night, her mental condition takes a turn for the worse, further worrying over-attentive husband Walter (Giuliano Raffaelli). As the audience, we know that Todesco’s accident was nothing of the sort; she fell while being chased in the film’s opening sequence.

Enter handsome young architect John Brenton (Gianni Medici) who gets his gig on the recommendation of old college chum Frances (Janine Reynaud) who also happens to be a seemingly permanent guest at the castle. Medici finds himself drawn to Berni, despite her mood swings and the insistence of everyone else that she’s going mad. The staff provide further complications; there’s smooth estate manager Clark (Luigi Batzella), a gossipy maid, a hard as nails housekeeper and suspicious handyman, The Mute, played by US ‘hard man’ actor, Lawrence Tierney!

Assassino senza volto (1968)

‘You mean, you’re not my knight in shining armour?’

Sadly, all this results in is a lot of heavy-handed dialogue exchanges which rob the film of any pace or interest. One particularly odd thing is the frequent reference to chivalry and something called ‘The Tower Game’ which is insufficiently explained. It would seem to be a party game that involves choosing who you would throw off a building if there were three of you and only space for two. At least that’s all I can make of it.

These regular ruminations on courtly behaviour may help to explain one thing about the production, though. The cast all speak their native Italian (except Tierney who doesn’t get to talk at all) but are supposed to be English. The film takes place at ‘Nottingham Castle’, and there is talk at one point of a quick trip to London to buy antique furniture in Regent Street. (Dorigo obviously didn’t know his English geography too well, that’s a round trip of about 250 miles!) Perhaps he also believed that we English still behave like knights of the round table, so his somewhat obscure examination of the art of chivalry needed to take place here.

Perhaps the writer-director would have been wiser to concentrate on his plot a little more. A lot of the developments don’t stand up to very close scrutiny. Even after the (unsurprising) resolution of the mystery, it’s hard to work out why some of the killer’s victims were targetted. Replacement maid Betty (Rita Klein) has only been on-site a couple of days before she’s despatched. What she could have learned in so short a time that would be a threat to the killer is never revealed. Perhaps it was that she was too lively a character, whose late introduction to the proceedings does briefly suggest that the film is starting to get going!

Assassino senza volto (1968)

‘This catalogue modelling lark is a piece of cake.’

There’s also a curious dream sequence experienced by one of the principals where footage from the killer’s point of view is repeated. This would seem to be telling us the identity of the murderer. But why do that when the big reveal is more than a quarter of an hour away? And if this person isn’t the killer, then it makes no sense! Which is it? Watch the movie to find out. But either way, it’s a baffling decision to include it.

Also working against the film is the musical soundtrack by Coriolano Gori. Clashes of instruments emphasise every dramatic moment to such an extent that it almost seems the composer believed the film to be a parody. Matters are also ‘topped and tailed’ by unnecessary wrap-around scenes filmed at an Italian street festival. These seem to exist solely for the purpose of further reflections on the art of chivalry. It’s all pretty confusing and probably something lost in translation.

If Tierney’s appearance in a minor, non-speaking role in an Italian film of the late 1960s seems a little surprising, then it’s merely down to the fact that he needed the work. He’d enjoyed brief stardom in the title role of hit b-picture ‘Dillinger’ (1945) and featured in many similar vehicles before a showy  supporting role in Cecil B DeMille’s ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’ (1952) seemed to promise elevation to bigger productions. Unfortunately, Tierney liked to drink, and his drinking often led to violence and trouble with Johnny Law.

Assassino senza volto (1968)

‘Give me another drink or I’ll punch your lights out.’

After multiple arrests, film roles began to dry up, and he appeared mostly on television before moving to Europe in the 1970s. A return to Hollywood followed in 1983, and he played many guest roles on network TV shows such as ‘Hill Street Blues’, ‘Remington Steele’, ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.’ He even appeared on an episode of ‘Seinfeld’ and was considered so good that it was possible to make him a recurring character. Unfortunately, he stole a knife from the set and pulled it on the show’s star, Jerry Seinfeld. A late-career appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992) failed to revive his fortunes as his health was already failing and, during the time of filming, he had shot his nephew during a drunken binge.

Rather weak and off-centre Giallo which may interest fans of the genre but will most likely frustrate and confuse everyone who sees it.

L’lnferno (1911)

L'Inferno (1911)‘Count Ugolini gnawing on the skull of the Archbishop Ruggieri, his jaws uplifting from their fell repast.’

The poet Dante attempts to ascend the hill of salvation, but his way is blocked by a trio of wild animals, representing three of the deadly sins. Fellow wordsmith Virgil comes to the rescue, and takes him to the gateway of hell and then into the circles of damnation beyond…

This silent screen epic took three years to complete and was a very early example of a full-length feature, although it only runs just over 70 minutes. Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ (1320) is regarded as a seminal work of narrative poetry and a landmark in world literature. It’s a three-part story that follows Dante himself as he travels through hell and purgatory on his way to Heaven. This very early screen adaptation concentrates almost exclusively on the first two phases of the journey, and the visuals are heavily inspired by artist Gustave Doré whose illustrations of Dante’s work were well known at the time.

Considering its vintage, some of the film is technically quite impressive, but really what lets things down badly is the almost complete lack of a plot. Perhaps that’s why the work has been rarely adapted for the screen. Instead of a story, what we get is Virgil playing tour guide, taking Dante on a quick trip around the major tourist landmarks of the circles of hell. We are presented with one group of sinners after another, and their punishments are very specific for the type of sin they have committed; e.g. heretics are trapped in burning pits of fire, thieves in a river of burning pitch, and misers and spendthrifts condemned to roll heavy bags of gold for eternity. What happens to someone who has committed multiple infractions is not addressed.

So Dante and Virgil descend to the pit; meeting blasphemers enduring a rain of fire, suicides turned into blasted trees, flatterers and dissolutes washing themselves in a river of filth, the slothful and wrathful immersed in a stygian swamp and faithless custodians of public money being turned into strange wild animals. Some of these depictions are visually quite striking; in particular the lines of sinners constantly revolving in mid-air as if caught in an overhead tornado is a clear nod to the work of French film pioneer Georges Méliès.

Some of the suffering souls tell their sad stories to the poets, and we see these as brief flashbacks. These are various figures from history but, for the most part, unless you’re a scholar, you will not have heard of them. Their fame (or notoriety) has not survived into the modern-era. Some exceptions are Cleopatra, Helen of Troy and Brutus and Cassius, the two main conspirators in the plot to kill Julius Caesar (although we don’t hear much from these characters as Lucifer is busy using them as an aperitif). Robbers are bitten by serpents, forgers and alchemists become insane lepers, and there are cameos from Cerebrus, the three-headed dog, the furies and an angel. At one point we’re told that Dante is on a mission, but what it is, we never discover. He’s dressed in what seems to be a nightshirt and a cap with ear flaps, which would seem to indicate that the experience is supposed to be a dream, or a vision.

L'Inferno (1911)

It was raining men.

On the credit side, the narrative (such as it is) is told mostly through slow and elegant hand gestures, rather than the exaggerated histrionics that a modern audience might expect. Some of the outdoor locations are also impressive, particularly a mountain range, and a lot of the optical work and trick photography is good for its time. The use of coloured filters is also quite effective.

It may seem surprising when viewed today, but the film was actually a massive international success, which has encouraged some commentators to label it cinema’s first ‘blockbuster.’ But there’s a possibility that audiences weren’t buying tickets just to receive the film’s moral lessons, or to admire its technical achievements. In an early scene we meet Charon the ferryman, who is taking damned souls across the River Archeron. And apparently damned souls don’t wear any clothes. Yes, everyone is buck naked except for conveniently arranged G-strings and posing pouches! Their modesty is just about covered, but apparently there is a naked female breast in the film somewhere which did cause some censorship issues.

Bearing in mind this was the early days of motion pictures, you have to admire what the filmmakers managed to get up on the screen. However, this is simply not a story in any conventional sense; just a series of set pieces assembled almost like an exhibition of paintings.

And it’s probably best to try and forget that early scene where a soul in eternal torment takes a very obvious look around (and straight at the camera) as Dante and Virgil approach from the left hand side of the frame!


I vampiri/Lust of the Vampire (1956)

I_Vampiri_(1956)‘Beautiful Parisian girls were his victims!’

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.


She was going to have to talk to the home help again.

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.