Last year one of my favorite DVD discoveries was the uncut European release of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a movie that director Mario Bava made after Black Sunday but before he made Black Sabbath. It was a marvelous blend of modern-day horror with knife-wielding fiends lurking in the fog with creepy mansions and mood galore. Now I finally had the opportunity to view I Vampiri, the first modern Italian horror movie, produced in 1956, directed by credited Riccardo Freda (but also directed by uncredited Mario Bava) with Bava serving as director of cinematography.
The same team would reunite to do Caltiki, The Immortal Monster three years later, but, I Vampiri foreshadows both Black Sunday (Bava's black and white Gothic classic) and The Girl Who Knew Too Much, where his giallo leanings are showcased. I Vampiri, devised more as a police mystery, is not as satisfying a movie as The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and, of course, it is no Black Sunday, but the movie is chillingly executed and holds plenty of suspense and surprises.
The movie occurs in modern times, but the journalist who is working with the police to solve a string of vampire murders where young females have been drained of blood, is also romantically involved with Gisele, the affluent niece of the Duchess du Grand, an ancient woman whose face has not been clearly seen for years, her vanity reducing her to wearing veils to hide her features. Gisele and the Duchess inhabit a Black Sunday-esque castle, complete with huge fireplace that contains a secret passageway.
Bava manipulates the camera in such wonderful sequences such as a long walk showing the Duchess traveling secretly from the family burial vault to the castle, the curtains fluttering in unison as she slowly hobbles down the dank corridors. The large castle sets feature high ceilings with huge candelabras illuminating all the festivities. Whenever the movie segues to the castle it becomes almost a period piece occurring seemingly in an ancient world of dread. Of course, within the castle lies a secret laboratory with beakers and operating tables and syringes, giving it a decidedly modernistic flavor.
Returning to the modern world outside, Bava creates a sequence where the journalist hero follows a suspect of the vampire murders to his apartment in another creepy and Gothic style building. Knocking on the door he is confronted by the strange man, Joseph. The journalist returns later that day with his police comrades, but the apartment is deserted with no sign of habitation. Another incident occurs later when a young blonde woman is asked to do a favor by a blind beggar, she is to deliver a letter to a specific apartment. Arriving there, the girl is greeted with servants overseeing an ornate living quarters of affluence, but when the police later arrive, hot on the trail of the disappearing woman after tracking down the address from the beggar, all they again find is a deserted apartment. Shades of similar events occurred in strange apartments in The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
I Vampiri predicts two very different style Bava productions in his future while allowing I Vampiri to emerge as a wonderful horror whodunit. Interestingly enough, it turns out the Duchess du Grand is the orchestrator of the vampire murders, causing Professor du Grand to kill innocent young women for their blood which he uses to experiment on the Duchess and re-animate her as a young, beautiful woman. Of course, the treatments are only temporary, and upon emotional stress, the now young Duchess, who assumes the identity of her so-called niece Gisele, morphs into the old bat without warning.
The movie works on all levelsinteresting characters (especially the depraved supporting roles), fascinating photography, a well manipulated script and steadfast direction. I Vampiri is not a classic Bava production (and we must give credit to Riccardo Freda as well), but it is a first of its kind and it illustrates, in just one movie, all the different directions that Bava's career would take over the next 25 years. The Image DVD contains a letterboxed (16:9 enhanced) uncut European release which is absolutely pristine. The Italian language print is subtitled. Extras include filmographies of Freda and Bava and a lengthy biography by Tim Lucas of Bava. A photo/poster gallery is included as are trailers. Once again Image has unearthed the unaltered director's release cut of a pivotal movie and presented it in the clearest format possible. I Vampiri is well worth seeking out and is another important entry in Mario Bava's canon.
SCARS OF DRACULA
By 1970, when Hammer Film Productions released the final Gothic Dracula, Scars of Dracula, one era was coming to an end and another era was taking shape. Hammer was no longer at Bray Studios, and the diminishing budgets were beginning to show. Nudity was creeping into the mix and ultra-violence had replaced the subtlety and artistry of the horror thrillers of the past. While Scars of Dracula was directed by Roy Ward Baker, the best of the new Hammer directors (actually a veteran who will always be remembered for his A Night to Remember, one of the best retellings of the Titanic disaster, made over a decade earlier) and scripted by John Elder (aka Anthony Hinds), everything else about this latest installment in the Dracula series seems different. For instance, the mainstay of Hammer vampirism cinema is its detailed sense of mythos of the Undead, and in this movie, it is non-existent. For instance, victims of the vampires stay dead, they do not return as vampires themselves. One of the victims of Dracula is left impaled on a hook (a reference to Vlad the Impaler?) to rot, and unlike the stunning sequence in the original Horror of Dracula where Dracula intervenes when his vampire bride is about to put the bite on Harker, here Dracula arrives on the scene and uses a huge dagger to stab his vampire mate to death... something seemingly impossible in the annals of vampire lore. By 1970 Hammer was recreating Count Dracula in the image of serial killer who is less supernatural and more innately evil and cruel. However, included are a few sequences showing Dracula exit his protected chamber by scaling the vertical wall of his castle... the only entrance or exit to his casket where he sleeps during the day. Long-time Hammer cohorts Michael Gwynn (the creature from Revenge of Frankenstein whose performance remains one of the best in the entire Hammer horror history) and Michael Ripper return for supporting roles of substance. Ripper more than rises to the occasion by playing the barkeep who is also the titular leader of the local villagers who storm Dracula's castle at the movie's beginning. After Dracula's subservient bats slaughter the daughters and wives of the transgressing villages in their local church while the men are away, Ripper becomes callous and reclusive and distrusting of strangers later on in the movie as the youthful cast happens upon Castle Dracula. Gwynn, following in the long line of Hammer Vampire Hunters (Peter Cushing, Clifford Evans, Andrew Keir and Rupert Davies), becomes an absolutely anemic priest lacking courage and energy and simply sleep-walks through his performance. Although a flawless Technicolor print, which is absolutely pristine, Dracula's death is undramatic, he pulls out a metal spike from his chest, and, as he is about to thrust the spike back toward the recoiling hero, a lightning bolt from the heavens strikes the spike and causes Dracula to burst into flames experiencing a slow, agonizing death. The Anchor Bay DVD features a secondary disk, The Many Faces of Christopher Lee, and the major disk features audio commentary by Christopher Lee and Roy Ward Baker. A Talent Biography appears, as do trailers and poster and still galleries. Thus, as usual, Anchor Bay has presented this less than stellar production with all the bells and whistles that anyone would ever hope for. A stunning presentation of the swam song of Hammer Gothic horror does have its merits!