Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)

So, last night I watched an Italian Hammer film. Sort of. Made in 1960, L'amante del Vampiro is a rather wondrous thing. But first, the thrilling teaser trailer...





Got all that? It does bear some relation to the plot, for a wonder. It's a cheesy, silly film in some ways, but in others it's rather stylish and even, at times, intelligent. Visually it's pretty good, showing a steady hand from the director, Renato Polselli. Spoiler alert! I'll try to keep it mysterious, but some bits of this one are too good not to share.

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Our story begins in the present day (i.e. the late Fifties) with a bunch of sturdy Italian peasants milking cows, de-egging chickens, all the usual malarkey. Brigita, a buxom wench, is told to go and fetch water from the stream. After dark. Brigita inevitably drops her bucket as a cloaked figure appears and pounces upon her.

Cue the usual stuff. Peasants run around rhubarbing and expositing that 'There's been another attack!' and claiming its a vampire. Brigita is taken to the villa of the landowner, who is also 'the professor', and a doctor is called. Both the doctor and professor pooh-pooh peasant superstition and diagnose anaemia. Two puncture marks in the neck are explained away by 'she was found in a bush, they're scratch marks'.

The subtitles are one of the delights of this film, and I suspect they are quite accurate.

While Brigita is being diagnosed about a dozen attractive young women in skimpy night attire swarm into the room. Turns out these are all dancers who've been recruited by Luca, the professor's grandson (or possibly nephew, I'm not sure) to put on a ballet. Luca's friend Antonio is already there, doing the choreography. It turns out the ballet is a tad modernist for some tastes, as during the first rehearsal all the classical stuff quickly turns into the sort of number you might find in a Neapolitan jazz club.



'See sexy dance! Yes, yes, many pretty girls! Hey GI Joe, you wanna buy postcards?'

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Luca arrives from university, his girlfriend Francesca is pondering whether she wants to marry him, her friend Lusia tells her to get hitched, etc. Meanwhile Brigita is recuperating from her 'anaemia' when, in time-honoured fashion, the wind lashes the windows, they burst open, and a horrific creature enters. It's clear from Brigita's ambivalent reaction that, while scared, she's also aroused. The sensual nature of vampirism is foregrounded more strongly here than in Hammer's censor-aware Dracs.

The next we see of Brigita is her funeral, during which she 'awakens' in her coffin. We know this because there's a glass panel in the lid. Nobody notices that she's undead and they chuck soil down onto her anyway. For much of this film the good characters are required to blunder around being so unobservant that each one might as well have had Brigita's bucket over their head. But hey, conventions must be observed!

So far, so mundane, you might think. But then Luca, Francesca and Lusia go for a walk in the woods and get caught in a storm. They shelter in a supposedly deserted castle where they find the Contessa Alda, a beautiful and mysterious woman who dresses in Renaissance garb and lives with her handsome young servant, Herman. The contessa is an example of the 'so obviously a vampire she can't be one' trick. Oddly enough, she is. But she's not the vampire in charge...

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The 'teal' vampire is apparently luring in the castle somewhere, and he attacks Lusia when she unwisely goes into a walk-in closet to look at some fancy dresses. (Italy, remember.) Lusia thus becomes a slave of the vampire king who commands her telepathically to lure Francesca to a similar fate, after another dance routine and other stuff.

But what of Brigita? Ah, her fate I will leave discreetly veiled, because it's genuinely interesting. This film, scripted by the director and two co-writers, answers the obvious question about vampire 'plagues' in a convincing way. Why, when the toothy buggers can convert loads of people into bloodsuckers like themselves, don't they take over the world? The solution is simple and psychologically right. Vampires are Not Nice and their planning tends to begin and end at a purely personal level.

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Anyway, Luca and Antonio eventually figure out what's going, and after various red herrings are disposed of the vampire king is identified. Let battle commence! To a score that has a very old-fashioned feel, as in Hollywood weekly serials. Uneven scoring almost ruins the film, but after the sexy dance sequences the viewer is pretty much immune to jarring changes of tone. The heroes use the improvised cross or 'grab those candlesticks' method favoured by Mr Cushing in an earlier film, and the result is pretty much the same.

So, the pros and cons. Among several pros is a good, mostly young cast who throw themselves into Gothic hokum with great zest. It's an ensemble movie, which helps offset the fact that the king vampire is not especially charismatic. He's the anti-Lee, really, in that much of the time he's covered in what seems to be congealed mashed potato to represent his centuries of arrested decrepitude. This is balanced by the contessa, who offers a decent sketch of a tormented soul longing, in the end, for obliteration by sunrise. In terms of wit and intelligence it compares favourably with a lot of more recent stuff. There's even a Nosferatu nod, as the top vamp drives his own coach around post-war Italy without attracting a single traffic cop. It's a silly exploitation film, yes, but it's also stylish and fun.

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