I Vampiri: Mario gets his feet wet

I Vampiri directed by Riccardo FredaI Vampiri directed by Riccardo Freda

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBesides being marvelously entertaining, 1956’s I Vampiri is also an historically important film, and for two reasons. First, it was the very first Italian horror film of the sound era (I have never been able to precisely ascertain WHY the Fascists saw fit to put a ban on this type of entertainment in the 1930s, but the effects of the clampdown were far-reaching indeed). And second, and perhaps just as historic, it was the film that saw the first bits of direction from the great Mario Bava, a longtime director of photography and special effects technician who, as the story goes, filled in for director Riccardo Freda, shooting half the film in the final two days of its allotted 12-day production schedule! Freda was apparently quite pleased with his 42-year-old DOP’s first attempt in the director’s chair, as he gave Bava another chance to pinch-hit for him three years later, in the exciting horror film Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (an Italian variant of The Blob, which had been released the year before). Bava’s first go as the official director of a film came the following year, with 1960’s Black Sunday, one of the eternal glories of Italian horror – heck, of horror cinema as a whole – and the rest, as they say, is history. Anyway, I labored under two misconceptions before finally sitting down to watch I Vampiri recently. In my ignorance, I had long thought that its title translated to I, Vampire, whereas of course it translates to The Vampires. My other incorrect assumption may perhaps be more easily excused: I had always thought that the picture dealt with your average caped and coffin-inhabiting neck noshers, whereas the vampires on display here are decidedly of a different ilk.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn the film, which transpires in modern-day Paris, and not Italia (another expectation dashed!), four young women have been found, dead and exsanguinated, over a six-month period. When the latest of the “Vampire Killer”‘s victims is fished out of the Seine, hunky-dude reporter Pierre Lantin (played by Dario Michaelis) redoubles his efforts to track down the fiend. He is hampered in those efforts by the persistent and unwanted attentions of the beautiful Giselle du Grand (exquisitely played by Gianna Maria Canale), niece of the mysterious, elderly and veiled recluse the Duchess du Grand, who inhabits the local castle. By employing some old-fashioned detective work – and while irritating to distraction the police officer on the case, Insp. Chantal (Carlo D’Angelo) – Lantin is able to track his bloodsucker down … only to find that it is like nothing he’d been expecting…

Fast moving and intelligently scripted, more startling than scary, I Vampiri dishes out some truly genuine surprises. For this viewer, the dawning realization as to the vampire’s true nature came around 2/3 of the way in, right before the big reveal, and it really is a doozy, I must say. Most impressively, the transformation of the vampire from something seemingly normal into something more shocking (I am trying valiantly not to be guilty of spoilers here) is accomplished with no stop-motion photography or other tricks of the cinematic trade; a wig, a change of vocal timbre, and a flash of decayed teeth do the job quite nicely. Some very effective work here by Freda and Bava, and I might add that the acting in the film is quite fine, too, down to the smallest bit parts. The film mixes in Gothic elements (which would be a mainstay of Italian horror cinema in the early to mid-’60s) with more modern styles, and Bava’s lensing of the duchess’ palace, with its moldering crypt, exquisite ballroom and shadowy passageways, is a thing of great and dismal beauty, prefiguring his work in Black Sunday. Shot in B&W and CinemaScope, the film looks just fantastic, with Bava proving yet again what a master he was at employing light and shadow. (How impressive the film must have looked on the cinema screen back when, and how surprising the fact that the picture was NOT an instant success!) One odd note here: the score by Roman Vlad, which, especially during the action sequences, almost sounds more suitable for a Flash Gordon sci-fi serial. But other than this, the film works just fine; a levelheaded entertainment that holds up splendidly well almost 60 years after its premiere. Freda, after this film, would go on to direct not only Caltiki, but two pictures starring the so-called “Queen of Horror,” Barbara Steele: The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and The Ghost. As for Bava, after getting his feet wet here, he soon embarked on one of the most important directing careers in Italian cinema history. Nice to realize, though, that I Vampiri is far from just a dry, historic relic; it is a genuinely fun film that should surely please all fans of the Euro horror genre…

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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