Director: Riccardo Freda (& Mario Bava)
First released: 1956
This film is often seen to be Mario Bava’s directorial debut and yet, whilst credited as cinematographer, he was uncredited as director. This is because Freda shot half the film in the first 10 days of a 12 days shoot and then left the set. The producers asked Bava to finish the film in the last two days. This is not only an important film due to Bava’s debut, but because it was the first Italian horror film since silent movies.
More than this, it can – despite flaws – be seen to be the precursor to a whole sub-genre of films, some vampiric some not. The film is set in Paris and is a modernisation of the Erzsébet Báthory story and when I look at that later I will utterly spoil the film – you have been warned.
It begins with a body being fished out of a river but, like 3 other girls in the last six months, she is not drowned rather she has been drained of blood. The police are baffled, reporter Pierre Lantin (Dario Michaelis) is on the case and we see a gloved hand remove a medical card for a woman named Nora (Ronny Holiday). She is a dancer and waits in a theatre for a phone call whilst it is closed for the night. We see a figure come up behind her and chloroform her.
The police are called in, though Inspector Chantal (Carlo D’Angelo) does not seem to think a crime has been committed – she may have just absconded. Pierre knows differently, he has found her shoe and also discovered she is the same blood type as the other victims taken by the killer whom his paper is calling the vampire. Chantal is less than impressed with Pierre – an antagonism that goes on through the film and it is hardly surprising as Pierre’s theories (as accurate as they are) are all based on absolute gut instinct it would seem – one of the problems with the film as a thriller.
Anyway Pierre speaks to an autopsy doctor (Riccardo Freda) who points out that the fact that there are needle marks on the corpses does not mean a doctor necessarily was involved but could also indicate that the killer is a drug addict. Pierre finds a picture of Nora and spots a guy who might have been following her. His co-worker Ronald (Angelo Galassi) jokingly points out that the vampire attacks only started when Pierre came back to Paris so maybe Pierre and the killer are one and the same.
Pierre meets up with some schoolgirls, including one called Lorrette (Wandisa Guida), who were friends of Nora. Lorrette slaps him on meeting him – due to a dare to slap the first man to speak to her – but uses her left hand; it’s going to be important that. Lorette feels that they were followed before Nora vanished. His conversation is interrupted by Giselle (Gianna Marie Canale) the daughter of the local Countess du Grand – Pierre seems abrupt with her.
The man we saw grab Nora, Joseph (Paul Muller), is indeed a drug addict and is given a fix and told to go get another girl. He is stalking Lorette but is spotted by Pierre who follows him home. Pierre gets the police but the house they go to belongs to another (there has been a switcheroo with a construction sign, so Pierre led the police to the wrong street and we have to accept that Paris does not have street signs at all). Joseph goes to Dr Julien du Grand (Antoine Balpêtré) and demands money to get away. He is killed for his trouble. A veiled figure, the Countess, suggests that there is only one way to preserve Julien’s reputation.
A funeral is held for Julien du Grand, who died suddenly, and we are swept into a gothic landscape – after the modernistic images we have seen so far. It isn’t just the graveyard, but within the crypt and within the Countess' castle. We are now in a full on world of carved devils, skulls and cobwebs. It looks wonderful and yet somehow incongruous – a bit like the works of Tim Burton years later where Gothic monstrosities would be placed within suburbia.
Anyway, the crypt has a secret passage to a dungeon below the castle, where Julien has set up shop. He has the body of Joseph (buried in his place) with which he intends to experiment and his entire life seems to be focused, otherwise, on perfecting a technique using the blood of young girls (of a specific blood type) to make the Countess young again. Why he is doing it, I cannot say but it opens a whole tradition of films.
Later films to carry similar stories were Atom Age Vampire, which I concluded was not actually vampiric but does have a similar underlying theme and Nightmare Castle has a similar story running in the background, though it is very minor, and ramps up the gothic element with a full on ghosts, murder and revenge theme. Slightly different, mainly in the lack of medical/scientific aspect, but on the same lines was the Leech Woman. Famously, of course, there is also Countess Dracula, which also shares a motivating factor for the vampire. Of course we cannot deny there is also a touch of Jekyll and Hyde to such stories (sans potion) and similar techniques are used to "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" (1931) in order to achieve the aging effects.
Whilst we do not know why Julien is doing this, the Countess' motivating factor seems to be love (with just a Soupçon of vanity thrown in for good measure). In fact it is for Pierre’s love (so Ronald wasn’t too far out with his connection with Pierre’s return to Paris). She loved Pierre’s father and was rebuffed and so tries to get the son. Unfortunately he is not interested either and we are left with quite a pathetic unrequited aspect. As in some of the later films the jig is up when the vampire ages in front of others and I Vampiri introduced the idea that the effects lasted for a shorter period each time.
There is an interesting side story with Joseph being regenerated and Pierre trying to use him as evidence of goings on in the castle. It is interesting because we can see gruesome scars on Joseph’s neck but there was no explanation for them – except for a supposition, perhaps, they were to do with the experiments. Actually Joseph was meant to have been guillotined (but the censors demanded that scene be cut) and his head reattached to another body.
One aspect that really isn’t explored is how the blood of a victim – specifically that of Lorette – would effect the behaviour of the vampire. Pierre realises something is going on up at the castle when Giselle tries to write left handed, the same hand that Lorette uses. It is one of his illogical but accurate leaps of faith. It was an interesting direction – taking traits from the victim as well as youth – but not explored any further and used simply as a plot device for the thriller. One has to question why the baddies dumped a body in the river when they had a perfectly serviceable crypt and a dungeon with bodies in it – surely a lack of victims turning up would have kept the heat off.
Be that as it may this is an interesting example of Italian Gothic cinema; there are some beautiful shots in the film that could only have come from Bava. The music perhaps detracts from, rather than adds to, the atmosphere unfortunately and the fact that the story relies on coincidence and leaps of faith is a shame because the base idea opened up a sub-genre, as mentioned. Not the greatest example of Bava’s work, but certainly better than the Leech Woman or Countess Dracula. 5.5 out of 10.
The imdb page is here.
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Director: Riccardo Freda (& Mario Bava)