L'Amante del Vampiro (1960)
aka The Vampire and the Ballerina
Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956) is often credited as the film that kicked off the horror movie revival that saw the genre resurge from near-dormancy. That revival was soon given a sharp shove along by Mario Bava, who shot and finished Freda’s film, as well as Hammer Studios in England. Renato Polselli’s L’Amante del Vampiro, an odd, surprising, if fitful entry in the Italian horror stakes, bears some influence of both Freda and Hammer, but also betrays thoughtfulness in synthesising a contemporary style of horror that marks it as a work of individual stature and a must-see for anyone venturing off the beaten track in this wing of the genre. It might even mark a bridging point, between the renascent Gothic tale with its landscape of ageless tyrants and atmosphere redolent of the past’s leeching and indomitable grip, and more novel variances on such figures of primal unease. L’Amante del Vampiro follows I Vampiri in transplanting the vampire motif into a modern setting. The anxieties that fuelled giallo, Italian horror cinema’s singular branch that would be instituted a couple of years later by Bava, are already lingering here, as Polselli explores the insidious power of the irrational preying on the unsettled and uneasy attitudes of the present, when morality is in flux and old boundaries are collapsing. There’s also a fixation with the body as nexus of horror, afflicted with malignant transformation, that offers a seed of later inquiry for a more radical generation of horror filmmakers. The setting anticipates Suspiria (1977), a dance academy in an old manor house in the Italian countryside of an elderly professor (Pier Ugo Gragnani). The manor is inhabited by a platoon of talented young ladies, choreographer Giorgio (Gino Turini), and the professor’s grandson Luca (Isarco Ravaioli). The opening sequence seems to be set in the distant past, one contiguous with Bava’s solo debut La Maschera del Demonio released the same year, as a young woman, Brigita, is attacked in a barn by an unseen fiend. She’s brought to the school and given medical attention, and the professor recounts to his wide-eyed charges the local superstitions that hold the region is host to vampires. Left to recover in a room of the school, is visited again by her mysterious nemesis, and this time dies from loss of blood. Soon it becomes plain the setting is the present day, the dance collective existing in a louche and sensual bubble fired up by the brawling mores of jazz and rock, detached from the harsher world symbolise by the neighbouring wood, where fetid, ancient truths lurk.
The students throw off the mantle of bleakness that descends after this event and spend a day frolicking in the woods. Two romances seem to find their natural apogee as Giorgio proposes to one of the dancers, Luisa (Hélène Rémy), and Luca, just returning after completing his college studies, seems on the verge of doing the same thing with another dancer, Francesca (Tina Gloriani). A threatening storm sends Luca, Francesca, and Luisa scurrying for cover, and they’re forced to take shelter in a castle in the middle of the woods. They soon find that, far from being abandoned as they think, the castle is home to Countess Alda (María Luisa Rolando) and her manservant Herman (Walter Brandi). The Countess blames her solitude, and the fact both she and her servant dress like it’s the sixteenth century, on her loathing for the present day and desire for peace. The weirdness seems momentarily at bay, but then Luisa goes missing briefly, after, unseen by her friends, she’s attacked by a ghastly figure with a gnarled face and hands, and the Countess begs Luca to return to the castle and be her lover. Once Luisa turns up, in a vague and distracted state, the trio return to the academy. Luisa continues to perturb Francesca with her suddenly guarded and knowing behaviour, before she’s visited in her room by the hideous man, and Francesca catches sight of him as he flees through the grounds. Meanwhile Luca visits the Countess, who begs him whilst gripping him in a seductive clinch to help her escape. But when Herman bursts in upon them, it seems that the servant is master, and Luca withdraws uneasily upon the man’s polite but stern request. Just how odd this ménage is even Luca doesn’t quite realise yet, as Herman is the hideous vampire: the Countess is his partner in the affliction, and to save her from having to chase prey for herself, Herman drinks the blood of others and lets the Countess suck it from his veins, constantly reducing him from suave and powerful undead overlord to desiccated wretch.
Polselli co-wrote the script with Ernesto Gastaldi, soon to be one Italian horror cinema’s most employed writers, and Giuseppe Pellegrini, and the underlying kinkiness of their work is at its clearest here, in this deeply twisted reconfiguration of the familiar motif of the aristocratic vampire and bestial servant, usually offered in heightened caricature of the remnants of ancient hierarchies outliving their usefulness. But a pregnant atmosphere of stirring, dark erotic wont defines the film as a whole. The film’s official mission statement seems entirely to be offer some soft-core thrills, as we get some mildly pervy scenes of the dancers practising or else dashing about the castle at night in their baby dolls. But this is a smarter and richer work than this tilt suggests, as the narrative presents the immediate promise of settled, ordered sexual relations, with the two engaged couples, only then to see the intrusion of something altogether stranger set everything in chaos. Herman’s attacks on Luisa place her under his power, both victim and conduit, and her attachment to Francesca begins to turn a distinctly Sapphic hue, heavily telegraphed in a sequence when the two women lounge on a bed, ripe with inchoate and intense feelings. Meanwhile Brigita is buried in a sequence that overtly quotes Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), as the horrified woman awakens in her coffin whilst being carried by a funeral procession to be buried. Herman tracks her down in the night, with Polselli making a striking reveal of Brigita after she's escaped from her coffin, clad in her white, wedding-gown-like funeral garb, perversely transformed with her giant new teeth affixed, made to resemble the products of some monstrous, transfiguring surgery to place phallic protuberances on a feminine form (as Ken Russell would similarly emphasise much later with his Lair of the White Worm, 1987). Herman pretends to greet her into the new life of vampirism, only to thrust her back into her coffin and stake her, declaring that he must be master of his world, free of competition and claims on his affections, which are held in chains of morbid co-dependence by the Countess.
Gastaldi would go on to write other horror films like What Are These Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body? (1972), which would similarly rifle the burgeoning mores of a permissive society. The whispers of forbidden lusts that pervade Polselli’s film would be bellows by that time. Polselli offers a gruelling intimacy in his visions of people preyed on by monsters and the tormenting nature of need, complete with Pinteresque moment when Herman, seemingly enraged by finding Alda with Luca, instead sinks to his need and grips her, moaning of his desire to own her and be owned forever, before then allowing her to bite him and suck him dry. Released in the same year, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura sent shock-waves through the artier zones of film, L’Amante del Vampiro even betrays an unexpected charge of underground psychic connection with that more famous film, in its suggestions of discomforting new frontiers and sundering assumptions telegraphed through charged, rigid figurations of the actors. The literal translation of the Italian title betrays the theme of lawless love violating all limitations of life and morality. The ferocity of Herman and Alda’s love-hate relationship burns with the force of another age, defined by their eternal folie-a-deux that constantly repeats the same crisis as Alda falls under the sway of handsome Herman but lives in revulsion of his withered other self. Meanwhile open-shirted bimbo Giorgio is just as happy banging out tunes for his harem to prance to and Luca is readily drawn in by the demonic sensualist clad in Borgia-era gilt and satin. Eventually Herman and Alda’s attempt to snatch Francesca away with Luisa’s help fails when Francesca breaks away and her screams alert Giorgio and Luca: Luisa’s reward for her servitude is to be chained up in the vampire crypt with Herman planning to vampirise her and keep her as an eternal captive, a coup-de-grace of sadistic inspiration.
Polselli’s direction in such sequences is effective, and he shows skill in lending a pregnant charge to Luisa and Francesca’s exchanges through use of implicatory shadow. Elsewhere he borrows from Terence Fisher: sequences depicting Brigita and Luisa’s ecstatic midnight vigils waiting for their demon lovers quote Dracula (1958), and in the finale. Polselli’s use of the ruined castle’s environs as an underworld, with arm-shaped candelabra jutting from the walls calls back to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Orphée (1949). L’Amante del Vampiro could be taken as an exercise in exploitation cinema dressed up with cine-literateness, and Polselli’s handling is as much drag as plus, occasionally turning slipshod on the levels of narrative construction and visual grammar. The film also never quite translates the theoretical erotic hothouse that is the theme of a vampire preying on a school full of nubile dancers into something substantial, as there are great patches when the school is all but forgotten. One sequence that does exploit the theme is a performance where Giorgio encourages the girls to improvise on the theme of vampires, during which the black-clad lovelies cavort, and Luisa and Francesca face off in taunting parries. Angelo Baistrocchi’s good-looking photography is a plus with its sharpness and heavy chiaroscuro. The film barrels towards with its climax with haphazard but genuine power as it leaves Luisa’s actual fate vague – it’s suggested she might return to life, but the film cuts out before offering yea or nay on this. Perhaps she was too far gone to the dark side to survive at this point in the eyes of the presumed period audience. But the very ending is amazing in the spectacle of Herman and Alda, vengefully driven into the light by Giorgio and Luca (the first time a choreographer has been the macho hero, in velvet jacket no less?), where they flail in their mutual recrimination and desperate throes of thwarted life-passion. Here Polselli puts across a gruesome portrait of corporeal as well as spiritual suffering beyond the usually clean-cut vampiric demise, as they dissolve messily in the dawn, thrashing and snarling in the final consummation of love and hate that’s dragged them through the centuries together, an ode to melting flesh leaving only damned souls still grimly clinging to existence.