I vampiri (1957)

Directors: Riccardo Freda, Mario Bava

Kicking off my contributions to this year’s Italian horror blogathon by going back to the beginning… well, as near to same as we can. This was apparently the first horror film made in Italy since 1920 or something, Mussolini having not been a fan of the genre which he banned from Italian screens. With him out of the way, that wasn’t a consideration. For years I probably thought it was the rise of Hammer that triggered the Italians, so I’m interested to discover I vampiri actually beat Curse of Frankenstein into cinemas by about a month and might even have beaten it into production as well. Alan Jones’ DVD booklet essay (the film is a bonus feature on Arrow’s Black Sunday release) reckons the belated Italian release of the 1930s classics was the real impetus for Riccardo Freda to boldly go where no Italian filmmaker had gone before. Or at least not since 1920 or so. (Certainly one key effect in I vampiri was lifted from Mamoulian’s Jekyll & Hyde.)

Amusingly, the Italian horror industry began as something of a bet, with Freda promising his producers he could make the film in less than two weeks. Jones observes that Freda was a notorious gambler; alas for him, his mouth wrote a cheque his arse couldn’t cash this time, and with two days left on his schedule only about half the film was done. Freda’s demands for more time were, perhaps understandably, met with “but you promised, two weeks” and he stomped off in a huff. And so Freda’s cameraman, Mario Bava, stepped up to the plate instead and did the rest of the film in just the two appointed days. To be honest I couldn’t particularly see the joins and it didn’t feel overly rushed; Jones says one subplot got mostly cut, but that bit of business still comes across OK in the film… I was interested to see I vampiri actually wasn’t quite the traditional gothic I was expecting; actually it’s more of a “mad science” deal, a modern-day update of the Countess Bathory story, in which a very ancient countess has her scientist husband devise a way of keeping her forever young, a way that somehow involves young girls… I’d be lying if I said this was a particularly great film, the plot could’ve come from a 1940s Poverty Row B programmer (this very one, in fact) and it doesn’t rise much above that level. What the film does have, though, is Bava’s visuals, which are pretty damned amazing; Arrow’s print is a particularly good one that shows those visuals off in fine fashion. You could probably argue that Italo-horror’s style over substance tendencies began here too, but I vampiri is certainly always watchable and efficiently made; fortunately its box office failure at home wasn’t enough to stop Freda and Bava from trying again…

Written for the 4th Annual Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

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