Tuesday 15 March 2011

I Vampiri (1956)

I VAMPIRI was directed (in part) by Riccardo Freda in 1956 and, aside from being very entertaining, is notable for two reasons.  First, it is generally held to be the first Italian horror film of the talkie era, and secondly it is the first film that the great Mario Bava played some part in directing.  I'm ashamed to say my limited knowledge of Italian cinema means I can't confirm the first point but am delighted to report that the film has enough visual flourishes to confirm the second.

Unlike a lot of Italian horror films, which are set before the 20th century and use gothic trappings also favoured by Hammer, this one is set in the present and begins with a short sequence of some bargees dragging a body out of a canal that - a sequence that clearly shows the influence of neo-realism.  Essentially, neo-realism was a movement in Italian cinema that came about as a reaction against the prevailing style of film-making which was highly conservative and dealt almost exclusively with the lives of the upper classes.  Neo-realist films  foregrounded the lives of working class people and were much grittier, eschewing the soapy melodrama of the previous generation.  There was a similar movement in British theatre and cinema that we called 'kitchen sink' drama, typified by John Osborne's 'Look Back in Anger' which featured the prototypical angry young man in Jimmy Porter.

I should stress I'm not arguing that I VAMPIRI is a lost neo-realist classic but, aside from its important place in the horror chronology, there is a definite political element to it which is worth considering.  The villain is a Countess Bathory figure, who must receive regular transfusions of virgins blood in order to maintain her beautiful, youthful appearance.  She is shown to be a wastrel, buying expensive artworks and throwing lavish parties while serving no useful function in society.

So I think the title refers more to the aristocratic waste and decadence than it does to actual blood-sucking.  There are no fangs or neck wounds in this movie; it's all done through corrupt doctors and the exploitation of the helpless (the person who does the abducting is a drug addict who is paid with a fix).

Murderer or victim?  Paul Muller as Joseph Signoret

Modern-day vampires

The hero is a journalist who yearns to do proper work; he complains bitterly to his editor (called Mr Bourgeois) about being sent to cover one of the Contessa's parties.  He is more comfortable in the presence of the ordinary but distraught parents of the latest victim, or with the harassed and over-worked policemen, than among the oblivious partying socialites.  There is a visual contrast too between the ordinary streets and houses of the general public and the Contessa's remote gothic castle.

This is the only real concession to the usual iconography of the horror film but even then there are subtle visual clues to underline the film's political message.  There are, for example, numerous shots in the castle which feature chairs.  I think these represent the extravagance of the wealthy: they are beautiful antique chairs but they are always empty.  In other words they are there simply for the sake of being there, they are not functional.

The Contessa's gothic castle (note empty chairs)

Despite my pointing all this out, I must say that it is not over-emphasised; the film works as a tense horror-thriller and really delivers the goods for fans of the genre. 

Gianna Maria Canale is great as the evil Contessa, her wealth and beauty alone seemingly enough to dissuade anyone that she might not be all she seems.

Gianna Maria Canale

Paul Muller, who plays the unfortunate junkie Signoret, is a Swiss actor who early in his career worked on some major European films but eventually began to slide down the greasy slope that leads inexorably to Jess Franco.

I should also mention the British actor Charles Fawcett who plays the aforementioned Mr Bourgeois.  He was a fascinating guy; among many other accomplishments, he helped Varian Fry rescue thousands of Jews from occupied France and trained the mujahideen in Aghanistan to counter Soviet forces.  He lived out his days in Chelsea and died at the ripe old age of 92.


  1. An impressive and thought provoking review. I personally feel that this film gets overshadowed a bit by Mario Bava's Black Sunday and really deserves more recognition. Also, I thought the aging effect used on the Contessa was both creepy and remarkable.

  2. Thanks very much. Absolutely agree about the ageing effect: it appears to happen with no cutting, which is terrific. As much as I like Black Sunday, I think I Vampiri works better as a film and is actually more ambitious.