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 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.