Crypt of the Vampire directed by Camillo Mastrocinque
Everyone knows how wonderful the late great Christopher Lee could be at playing the monstous heavy — not for nothing is he known to his fans as Mr. Tall, Dark and Gruesome! — but many forget that he could be equally adept at portraying “the good guy.” Thus, fans are often pleasantly taken aback when they see the 1968 Hammer film The Devil Rides Out for the first time, in which Lee plays the Duc de Richleau, a combater of Satanists in 1920s England (though this film is weak tea compared to Dennis Wheatley‘s 1934 source novel). For further proof of Lee’s ability to portray a defender of right and light, viewers may be interested to seek out Camillo Mastrocinque’s Italian Gothic horror film Crypt of the Vampire (1964), which can also be seen under the title Terror in the Crypt (a superior appellation, I feel, as the vampiric elements in the film are very minor).
In this picture, Lee plays the Count Ludwig Karnstein, who fears that his daughter, Laura (Adriana Ambesi), has become possessed by a witch who was put to death by his ancestors 200 years previously, and who had sworn to return to take vengeance on the family’s descendants. Following the advice of his young blonde mistress, Annette (Vera Valmont), the count hires a young expert on antiquarian matters, Friedrich Klauss (Jose Campos), to learn more about this deceased witch and, hopefully, unearth a portrait of her. Laura has been suffering strange visions of late, and having eerie dreams, and it really does seem as if the poor gal has become possessed. Her lot brightens, however, when a carriage breaks down near the Karnstein castle, and the beautiful Ljuba (Ursula Davis) becomes a guest in the ancient pile for a few days…
If this story line sounds at all familiar, it can be revealed here that, yes, Crypt of the Vampire IS yet another reworking of the oft-filmed Sheridan Le Fanu novelette of 1872, “Carmilla;” I might also add that it is not nearly as effective a filmization as Spanish director Vicente Aranda’s The Blood-Spattered Bride (1969), a film that I just love. Still, Crypt of the Vampire is darn good enough, although its debt to Mario Bava’s seminal Black Sunday, made four years earlier, is fairly apparent, and never more so than in that 17th century witch-slaying sequence. Crypt also shares similarities with another Italian Gothic that I had recently watched, 1963’s The Blancheville Monster. Both were filmed in B&W, feature ancient family curses, showcase some impressively moldering, realistically UNDERadorned castles and decrepit tombs, highlight some surrealistic dreams suffered by the leading lady, sport a trio of young starlets, and surprise the viewer with twist endings.
And both, unfortunately, suffer from a sluggish middle third and an ending that can only be described as weak; Crypt of the Vampire drags even further when Lee is not on the screen. But when he IS present, the picture is galvanized; thank goodness for his always welcome presence, and that great, mellifluous voice of his, which has survived the dubbing process here. Lee’s star power gives this film, automatically, an extra, uh, star. I must also add that some scenes in the film do not make 100% sense when considered in the light of that twist ending, and that the characters of Klauss and Laura seem miscast. Jose Campos, a young Bill Bixby type, seems a bit too boyish for the role; someone on the hunky order of Giacomo Rossi Stuart would have been preferable (check him out in Bava’s great film from 1966, Kill, Baby, Kill, to see what I mean). And Adriana Ambesi — you’ll forgive me for saying so — is almost too homely to portray Laura; she looks like a cross between Barbra Streisand’s plain Jane sister and the social misfit, Catherine Sloper, that Olivia de Havilland brilliantly portrayed in 1949’s The Heiress. Surely, Italian cinema has never lacked for lovely starlets; any of them might have been preferable.
Anyway, the good news is that Crypt of the Vampire does boast a number of very well-done scenes, including the discovery of a hanged hunchback with his hand cut off, and the subsequent use of that hand as a candelabra in a Satanic ceremony, as well as the final sequence, in which Count Karnstein & Co. explore the ancient witch’s tomb. The film is never without interest, even during its slower stretches, and I suppose is required viewing for all fans of Christopher Lee or Italian Gothic horror. The DVD that it comes to us on, from RetroMedia, sports a decent-looking print but is completely devoid of extras; not even the customary chapter stops! Note to some aspiring outfit: Howzabout a loving restoration and presentation of THIS relatively obscure instance of 1960s Eurohorror?!?!