Sunday, November 02, 2008

Vamp or Not? Kill, Baby… Kill!

dvdI had received word, from my friend Leila, that this 1966 Mario Bava directed movie, also known as Curse of the Undead, was meant to have some vampiric elements and was asked what my opinion was with regards this. I hadn't seen the film but of course, being Bava, I didn’t expect that any such elements would conform to the genre standards – though, to be honest, that is no bad thing. When I did some research I discovered that the film was listed over at Vampyres Online.

However that listing was a little more unusual than one would expect. As the page states, “The German release title ("Die Toten Augen Des Dr. Dracula" - translates to "The Dead Eyes Of Dr. Dracula") is misleading, as there are no vampires nor Count Dracula in the movie. In trying to connect the movie somehow to vampirism, the German dub has the Baroness Graps mentioning Count Dracula's influence as the source of her deeds.” This seemed dubious then but, as I had the film in the Bava Box Set, as I hadn’t got around to watching it and as Bava makes fantastic films… well all I could do was investigate.

We are in Transylvania and we see a woman, Irena Hollander (Mirella Pamphili), screaming and running, crying for help. There are ghostly howls that could be the wind or could be the restless spirits of the dead. She crosses a garden and reaches a doorway at the top of stairs. Her vision swims and she falls, impaled on the metal spikes of a fence. We see the stocking feet of a child descend the stairs.

Giacomo Rossi-Stuart as Dr Paul EswaiYes we are in the middle of a gothic kingdom, one where pallbearers run through the town in order that they may bury the dead with haste. Into this town comes Dr Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, who we have seen before in the Last Man On Earth and, unfortunately, in the ‘Not Vamp’ and dreadful Bloodsucker Leads the Dance). He is warned by the coach driver, who will not enter the town proper, to leave. As he walks to the inn he passes a shrine of crosses – one of them has garlic bulbs attached.

a charm to ward evilHe walks into the inn and we are in a perfect “You ain’t from around here…” moment. Eswai is looking for an Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli) and the general simmering hostility towards him is halted by the burgomaster, Kierr (Luciano Catenacci), who then takes him up to Kruger. The inspector himself is arguing with locals, who won’t reveal anything to him; they are wearing amulets of protection and are obviously scared.

Erika Blanc as Monica SchuftanKruger was drawn to the town when he received a letter from Irena, saying that she was next, and now she is dead. He has called Eswai in to do an autopsy, to try and ascertain whether she was murdered, committed suicide or it was a coincidental accident. When the doctor mentions the pallbearers, Kruger is incensed – the locals are obviously trying to stop the autopsy. They go to the graveyard and prevent the burial. Eswai is left to perform the autopsy with Monica Schuftan (Erika Blanc) assisting.

coin for the heartWe then get a marvellous shot, from the graveyard, with the camera swinging in and out of the perspective and then realise we are looking at the view from a swing – used, it appears, by a child. In a little hut Eswai carries out the autopsy and discovers that in Irena’s body there is a coin, which has been placed post mortem into her heart. Monica says that there is a local legend that a coin placed in the heart will bring peace to those who die violently. This, lore wise, was interesting. Obviously the coin ties in with the coin for the ferryman, but in this case it is specifically for those killed violently – traditionally a violent death would lead to restless dead and, if it were a suicide, those who take their own lives are more likely to rise as undead. Also, of course, the coin is in the heart and the heart is the primary organ used for dealing with vampires.

Monica may have been born locally but she has lived away. She is in the village to visit her parents’ graves. Eswai walks her to her lodgings and then, as he is heading home to the inn, he finds himself stalked and attacked by locals – as he interfered with the body of Irena. The attack is stopped by the mysterious Ruth (Fabienne Dali) – who happens to be a local sorceress. She vanishes off.

Valeria Valeri as MelissaHe gets back to the inn and discovers that Kruger has gone to the Villa Graps – the place were Irena worked. The young bar girl, Nadienne (Micaela Esdra), tells him that no-one who goes to the Villa comes back alive. She then panics and locks the inn up, but she sees a girl at the window and screams. Ruth turns up, knowing she is needed, and starts casting protective spells over Nadienne. Eswai observes this for a while and then heads to the villa to find Kruger. Interestingly Ruth has been given another body to deal with (put a coin in the heart of) by Keirr. She wants it buried before the sun rises as soil embraces the dead and keeps them held forever. This kind of takes the native/grave dirt staple and inverts it, whilst tying in an inverted, to the vampire genre, sun aspect. It is clear that Ruth is trying to place the dead into a state of peace.

inside the villaThe Villa is marvellous, a decayed gothic heap filled with cobwebs and suits of armour. Candles are held in holders shaped like arms and the lighting – a Bava speciality – is simply breathtaking. In the Villa, Eswai meets the Baroness (Giovanna Galletti) – who is less than friendly. He also meets the little girl, Melissa (who happens to be played by Valeria Valeri, a boy). Finally he sees a portrait of Melissa with a date of birth and death (1880-1887), she died some twenty years earlier.

Giovanna Galletti as the baronessWhat we discover is that the spirit of Melissa is being called back by the Baroness, to exact revenge against the village. Melissa died and no-one helped. It is said she died without a drop of blood in her. When attacking she rings a bell in the village square with her hatred – a death knell if you like. The attacks are psychological and she pushes the individual to suicide.

wearing a ciliceWe see this with Nadienne. Eswai finds her in the grip of a fever and then discovers that she wears a cilice round her waist. The cilice is a metal belt with inward turned spikes used for corporeal mortification – in other words self harm for religious purposes. Philip Rohr stated in his “Dissertatio Historico-Philosophica de Masticatione Mortuorum” that such implements were used by the living to prevent themselves becoming, in death, the ‘chewing dead’ or, we could say, shroud-eaters or, we could say, vampires. Once removed Nadienne sees Melissa at the window and impales herself.

There is some suggestion that those who die do not rest – without Ruth’s intervention that is. Certainly the ghostly noises could be from a host of spirits, Nadienne states ‘they picked me’ rather then just Melissa or the Baroness, but we never see them. Garlic is hung on doors but this could be simply a ward against evil.

despite a wound at the neck this is not a vampire attackAll told we have a wonderfully gothic tale. A Bava tale, which makes it worth seeing and, like the best of Bava’s work, it drips with atmosphere. Bava never uses vampires in the standard way and there are certainly elements of vampire lore in this. However, despite this, the film is a ghost story. The ghost doesn’t feed, that we are aware of, and so it isn’t really a vampiric ghost.

The addition of the name Dracula, in the German dub, is quite simply a cheap ruse and the use of his name in the title, or indeed the use of Living Dead in the USA reissue title, is not enough to make this vampiric. Not Vamp, but excellent stuff.

The imdb page is here.


Derek "Ruthven" Tatum said...

This is indeed an excellent movie. I've long suspected that it was an influence on Burton's "Sleepy Hollow."

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Derek, I can see that. The film also inflkuenced felini and Lynch. Inspirational and under-rated