Thursday, October 05, 2006

Crypt of the Vampire – review


Directed by: Camillo Mastrocinque

Release Date: 1964

Contains spoilers

You’ve got to love typos, though in someplace, somewhere there should be a proof reader hanging his/her head in shame. Take a close look at the DVD cover I’ve posted up, this 1960’s Spain/Italy vampire movie does not star “Christoher Lee”, as the box claims but Christopher Lee and in this Carmilla based story he is a human protagonist and not the vampire.

The film on the DVD goes by the US title “Terror in the Crypt”. The running length is 84 minutes, as opposed to the Spanish 92 minutes and there is at least one horrible cut that jolts. That said this is a wondrous gothic melodrama, with some fantastically cheesy and overly melodramatic soundtrack moments that add to, rather than detract from, the film.

I do not really want to go into the plot too far, as the screenplay throws more red herrings towards you than you’d find at a good sized fish market. There is also an over abundance of various horror staples, not only the standard vampire genre moments, and so I find I must tread a careful path of exploring some of the nuances of the film and not giving too much away.

We begin with a woman, later revealed to be Tilda Karnstein a cousin of the main family involved, running through the woods, and I will say there is a tendency in this film Tilda deadfor young women to venture out at night in naught but their nightdresses, she is obviously frightened. She sees a coach and the door opens. She screams and the screen fades to black. When it fades back from black, Tilda is dead on the floor, trickles of blood from fang wounds in the neck. We see a mysterious cloaked figure climb into the carriage, the letter K embossed on the cloak.

Cutting to Castle Karnstein, a young woman awakes screaming, she is Laura Karnstein (Adriana Ambesi). She is attended by the young blonde maid Annette (Vera Valmont) and the older housekeeper Rovena (Nela Conjiu).Annette is sent away and Laura tells Rovena that Tilda is dead, she says she was there.

The next day a young historian, Friedrich Klauss (Jose Campos), arrives. He has been sent for by Count Ludwig Karnstein (Christopher Lee) to investigate the library and discover what he can about one of the Count’s ancestors, Sera Karnstein. Sera was executed three hundred years before; she was accused of being a witch and killing young girls, for which she was crucified. When she died she cursed the house of Karnstein. Count Karnstein and AnnetteThe Count is going to take Klauss to the library when Annette approaches him. The butler directs Klauss and Annette tells the Count that Laura has had another nightmare. The Count asks who, indicating that others have died before and Laura has dreamt it, and she tells him Tilda.

In the library Klauss finds a manuscript with a five pointed star cut from it. We discover that Rovena has the star and has arranged to perform a ritual with Laura to discover the truth. Laura in black magic riteThat night, in the crypt, Rovena has a naked Laura lie upon a star in the crypt floor and summons Sera. We see Sera’s execution, though we do not see her face as she is masked, and we hear the curse. One will be born with her face and a lust for vengeance. Quite cleverly we cut to Laura in the crypt and it is she who tells the story whilst in a trance. Laura’s wrists have bled during the trance, as though she were tied. Rovena confesses to Laura that Sera has possessed her that night and later stops the distressed girl from throwing herself from the battlements. She tells Laura that if evil uses her she will kill Laura herself.

We then cut to Annette in the Count’s bedchamber. She knows that the Count has summoned Klauss to discover what Sera looked like – fearing that Laura is the reincarnation of the ancestor. Annette says that she wishes to marry the Count, but he dismisses the idea as she is young enough to be his daughter at which point she quips that he could adopt her. She is desperate to be a Karnstein.

Rovena and peddlerThe next day a hunchbacked peddler (Jose Villasante) arrives. It is clear that he is old friends with Rovena. He confirms that Tilda has been murdered and she is the third Karnstein to die since April.

So far we have had very little that would mark this as having anything to do with Carmilla. Sure we have had a vampiric attack and the surname Karnstein, but we have also had tales of witchcraft and black magic rites. However at this point a carriage crashes and a young girl is lifted from it. intimations of a closer unionHer name is Lyuba (Pier-Anna Quaglia) and her mother tells Laura that her daughter is rather ill and shouldn’t be travelling with her. Laura offers to allow Lyuba to stay whilst her mother is away. This of course is pure Carmilla and there are overtones of a special relationship developing between the two girls, though it is very subtly played.

Those familiar with Carmilla will now, of course, suspect Lyuba as the vampire but the film is very adept at throwing red herrings into the fray. Could it be Laura, all the evidence is heavily geared that way? Lyuba is, of course, the mysterious stranger, perhaps it is she who haunts the night? Annette wants desperately to be a Karnstein and Rovena calls her a parasite, maybe she wants to be a Karnstein too much? What of Rovena, was her summoning of Sera simply the misguided act of a loyal servant? She certainly knows the black arts and is happy to resort to them.

Well I will spoil one as I want to mention a couple of things about Rovena. Someone, eventually, kills the peddler, he is found hanging by the neck and, in a wonderfully effective scene, we see him hung and causing the bell of the abandoned village to ring as his dog pulls at his leg, and his hand has been cut off.

We see Rovena who has turned his hand into a Hand of Glory;a great scene she asks the spirit of the peddler for his forgiveness as she found his hanging corpse and removed his hand in order to find his murderer. After a supplicating spell to Satan, the candles on the fingertips lead Rovena to the killer but, before we can see who it might be, she is stabbed. Later there is a marvellous scene as her corpse sits in its coffin and points towards the murderer.

gothic imagery aboundsSuch superb gothic scenes abound in the movie, as the screenshot here of Klauss shows, note the hand creeping from the beautifully ornate coffin inching towards him. It is scenes such as this that makes the film. The appearance of Tilda’s spectre carrying a cup of Karnstein blood is another great scene.

Tilda haunts the nightAs I said there is an over abundance of red herrings and horror themes. As well as witchcraft and the identical ancestor themes we have the staple ‘portrait of the identical ancestor’, though in this case it has been hidden so that our protagonists are left in the dark and forced to search for it. We also have visitations by spirits of the dead and a hunchback character who perhaps knows more than he will say. This isn’t a problem because the film never feels too cluttered. That said, at one point, I thought that they lost track, slightly, of the red herrings as the characters, I believed, knew more at that stage than the dialogue allowed for. This was one line, however, and only a minor hiccup.

Lee adds great presence to the film, though he has actually very little to do and Ambesi is good enough as Laura but one can’t help think that Barbara Steele would have been perfectly suited for the role.

If it is let down at all it is, perhaps, in the direction. Not that it is bad by any stretch of the imagination but the film had such an overtone of Bava and yet Mastrocinque, whilst building a solid gothic chiller, was not in Bava’s league unfortunately. How much is the director’s fault and how much comes from the re-edit that the film has suffered is probably debatable.

That said, fans of 60s European horror films are not going to go wrong with this movie, especially fans of films such as Black Sunday, to which this film does owe a great debt. A good 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


The T said...

You got me interested! I've seen this dvd in a current store many times and for some strange reason never bought (fear of a bad transfer really.. they really throw me off).. But now I guess I'm going to get it.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Bar the re-edited bits this is a worthwhile gothic flick - let us know what you think when you've seen it