ARTICLES
A Short Biography of Mario Bava
Mario Bava: The Illusion of Reality
DVD REVIEWS
I Vampiri
Black Sunday
The Whip and the Body
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
Black Sabbath
Blood and Black Lace
Knives of the Avenger
Planet of the Vampires
Kill, Baby ... Kill!
Four Times That Night
Hatchet for a Honeymoon
Five Dolls for an August Moon
Twitch of the Death Nerve
Baron Blood
Lisa and the Devil
Shock

I VAMPIRI

REVIEW BY GARY JOHNSON

Mario Bava's film career got off to an auspicious start in 1956 when he lensed Riccardo Freda's I Vampiri. Bava originally signed on as cinematographer, but after Freda encountered difficulties with the investors and quit the production, Bava was entrusted with directing the final two days of filming. As a result, Bava fans have paid close attention to this first Bava film for evidence of his influence.

Until Image Entertainment's DVD release of I Vampiri, Bava fans had to turn to generally inferior video transfers from video companies that dealt in public domain movies. The problem was compounded by the American release, titled The Devil's Commandment, having incorporated several minutes of footage of unknown origin. This footage featured an opening sequence where a woman prepares for a bath and slips into her tub--while a killer silently stalks her. And it featured an extended sequence where a distraught woman runs to a beatnik bar after an apparent encounter with an overly amorous boyfriend--and a black-gloved killer stalks her as she calls her boyfriend and apologizes. (Unlike the rest of this Italian-language movie, the actors are clearly speaking English in this scene.)

Image Entertainment's DVD clears up much of the confusion by presenting an uncut Italian version of I Vampiri. Gone entirely are the two suspect scenes. Yet this version is longer than the American release because several scenes in the American prints were shorn of footage. In some cases, only a few seconds had been deleted, but in other scences substantial dialogue exchanges were missing.

Adding further yet to the confusion, significant changes in the story apparently took place after scenes had been completed, causing viewers to wonder if the resulting gaps were the result of production/distribution company tampering. For example, surviving stills show the killer being executed by guillotine. But this scene doesn't appear in the movie; however, in at least one scene, we can clearly see sutures on the killer's neck--as if he had been pieced together and brought back to life (a la Frankenstein's monster).

Image Entertainment's DVD doesn't explain what happened to the execution scene (which was deleted at the request of Italian censors). but in virtually every other sense it's a revelation. Instead of forcing us to endure the dreadful dubbing of the American release, we get the original Italian-language version with optional English subtitles. The American dubbed release completely altered huge chunks of dialogue and in the process turned the hero into a strutting, insufferable martinet. In the Italian version, the hero is still somewhat irritating, but at least he's tolerable. And now we can see that several amateurish camera shots meant to provide shock effects weren't part of the original Italian release. For example, there is scene where a woman is kidnapped and held prisoner in a castle. She wakes and wanders into a room occupied by the decayed remnants of three corpses. Her eyes roll back and she faints. In the American release, some bright-minded individual decided the scene would work better with a close-up of rats crawling through a human skull--a close-up that immediately trivializes the horror. Image Entertainment's release restores some dignity to I Vampiri by eliminating these inserts entirely.

stills from
I Vampiri
[click photos for larger versions]

I Vampiri (English translation: "The Vampires") inaugurated Italian gothic horror cinema in 1957, a time when horror film production around the globe had slowed to a trickle. Only three years later, horror film production would rise to one of its highest points in history. What role did I Vampiri play in the rise of horror cinema? It's difficult to say. Few Italian horror films immediately followed in its wake. However, in a parallel development in England, Hammer Studios began work on The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (American title: Horror of Dracula), with a similar emphasis on gothic ingredients (e.g. castles, musty passages, dusty curtains, dank crypts, etc.). The Hammer films would have a profound effect on the history of horror cinema. Without the great success of Hammer, I Vampiri may have had very little influence. It didn't do particularly well at the box office in Europe.

However, I Vampiri does contain a veritable grocery list of horror cinema ingredients: 1) it's part giallo thriller, with detectives and reporters searching for a serial killer (a genre which Mario Bava would explore in Evil Eye and Dario Argento would perfect in thrillers such as Deep Red); 2) it's part variation on the Countess Bathory legend (who as legend has it attempted to prolong her life by bathing in the blood of virgins); 3) it's part mad scientist movie (with a doctor who yearns to "discover the very energy that creates life.") ; and 4) it's part prototypical Italian gothic horror (with a magnificent castle filled with huge, cavernous rooms and flowing, tattered curtains).

The movie is somewhat hampered by the weak central character--a smug newspaperman named Pierre Lantin who insists (without any evidence whatsoever) that a vampire is responsible for the murders that shock Paris: "Vampire Continues His Killing Spree!" scream a newspaper headline. Compensating for the annoying presence of Dario Michaelis as Lantin, the movie gives us magnificent sets, atmospheric cinematography, and several strong supporting performances, such as Paul Muller's performance as the murderer.

The story itself is built around a recent murder spree in Paris. Several exotic dancers (the dubbing labels them "ballerinas" in the English language version!) have been drained of blood and dumped in the Seine. Now, a newspaperman named Lantin claims a vampire is responsible. He's obsessed with catching the killer: "I know it seems I'm obsessed, but I have to discover his identity!" Meanwhile, the camera shows us the killer (Paul Muller) at work. He isn't killing women randomly. A doctor, Professor Julien du Grand (Antonie Balpetre), urges him to kill in exchange for injections of an unspecified drug. However, the doctor is actually in cahoots with the Duchess du Grand, who herself still moons for her dead lover--the father of Pierre Lantin. The Doctor provides her with blood transfusions that reinvigorate her (she's actually over 100 years old) and allow her to masquerade as her own granddaughter, Giselle du Grand (Gianna Maria Canale). Once reinvigorated she caresses her face and looks at herself in a mirror: " I'm beautiful!" she says. But Lantin doesn't pay any attention to Giselle. His co-worker asks about Lantin's indifference to Giselle: "The most beautiful woman in Paris makes eyes at you and you don't care?" "It's a long story involving our families," says Lantin. "I'm not interested in her." But Giselle is obsessed with love: "I became young again at the cost of human life just for that man's love! I couldn't let him get away like I let his father get away!"

This strange combination of plot elements and characters doesn't always work well together. We don't get any characters that we can really care about. And the movie seems to be always pulling in five different directions at the same time. We don't get to see enough of Canale as Giselle. In fact she only appears briefly until the movie is halfway over. (Canale is a marvelous presence; dark and mysterious, she was a beauty queen in the late '40s and eventually married director Riccardo Freda.) We know virtually nothing about the college girl (played by Wandisa Guida) that Pierre develops a hankering for--until she's kidnapped and held captive by the Doctor and his clubfooted assistant. But the movie contains a stylish, dazzling mise-en-scene thanks to the work of director Riccardo Freda and cinematographer Mario Bava.

Riccardo Freda had been involved in the Italian film industry since 1937, as both a screenwriter and production assistant. He made his debut as a director in 1942 with Don Cesare di Bazan and his career prior to I Vampiri included Les Miserables (1947) and several historical dramas. Freda was never particularly interested in the horror genre. He disliked making movies about the supernatural. He found the evil within normal men and women to be much more horrific than ghosts and monsters. Maybe that's why I Vampiri is so plausible. It isn't about ordinary vampires. In fact, it doesn't give us any conventional vampires at all. Instead, it gives us a situation where a doctor lusts to discover the very energy that creates life.

Mario Bava's contributions to I Vampiri went far beyond simply choosing camera angles and setting up lighting. His presence is felt in the decrepit, decaying atmosphere of the Du Grand castle, where the crumbling stone walls and dusty passageways reflect the decadence of the Du Grands. Most impressively, Bava devised a fascinating lighting effect for the blood transfusion scene: without the use of special makeup or time lapse photography, the Duchess becomes reinvigorated as the new blood enters her veins-- her hair darkens and her wrinkles disappear.

Both Freda and Bava would both go on to create better movies than I Vampiri. Much of the movie's fame rests on its historical importance. The movie itself is somewhat disjointed and the big scenes feel rushed. But for fans of the genre, it's fascinating evidence of the birth of Italian gothic horror.

 


I Vampiri is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment in a widescreen presentation (2.35:1 aspect ratio). The DVD has been enhanced for 16x9 TVs. Special features: Mario Bava biography and liner notes by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog; director filmographies; theatrical trailer; and a photo and poster gallery. Suggested retail price: $24.99. For additional information, we suggest you check out the Image Entertainment Web site.