I Vampiri (1956)
“I Vampiri” is the great Mario Bava’s uncredited directorial debut. Obviously preceeding “Black Sunday,” (based very loosely on Nikolai Gogol’s “Viy”) starring the lovely Barbara Steele which is his official debut. Director Riccardo Freda made a bet that he could make this film in twelve days and the producers said OK. Being a friend of and impressed by Mario Bava with his cinematographic and special effects abilities hired Bava as the cinematographer and special effects man. Ten days later and only halfway through the script Freda left the set and the reins were given to Mario Bava who was set upon to finish the last half of the film, rewriting the script a bit, he did it all in the remaining two days.
Apart from being Bava’s uncredited directorial debut this film is important because it is the very first Italian “talking picture” horror film. To my knowledge previous horror films were silent film. Shot in beautiful Black and White it has a running time of about 78 minutes. Reminiscent of several themes, “Frankenstein,” “Elizabeth Bathory,” even “Re-Animator” plays a strange part.
Set in Paris, a series of murdered young girls have been showing up in the river Seine drained of all their blood over the past six months. Reporter Pierre Lantin (played by Dario Michaelis) who has been following the murders of the killer, dubbed “The Vampire” becomes some what obsessive with the case and starts his own investigation. But then Lorrette who keeps making adavnces to him (while he practically ignores her) disappears he looks further receiving no help from the police. He is invited to to the “du Grand” castle Ball with his friend and partner Ronald but when Ronald goes missing this intrigues Pierre even more.
Then there is the Duchess Margherite du Grand and her niece Giselle, played by the beautiful “Gianna Maria Canale ”, who is romantically interested in Pierre.
There is also a mad scientist and his helper who are doing strange experiments with the dead.
How does that play out:
The Duchess du Grand was in love with Pierre‘s father and her lover Dr. Julien du Grand (the mad-scientist who later fakes his own death) is developing a way for her to stay young. The blood of young women. He, with a drug addicted man, find young women who have the same blood-type as the Duchess and drain them of their blood and in a crazy looking laboratory. Thus she becomes young again (which doesn’t last) and takes on the identity of Giselle trying to woo Pierre in his fathers place.
The revelation for us as viewers comes when Ronald discovers the Duchess’s secret when he accidentally sees her (as Giselle) transform back to her true state as the VERY old Duchess. She then kills him to keep her secret.
Pierre and the police go to the castle and finding nothing are ready to leave. When Giselle starts transforming back to the Duchess Margherite they look again and find a secret passage and discover Dr. Julien du Grand alive. The police fatally shoot him and when they search his tomb they find the missing Lorrette barely alive. In the end: the girl finally gets the guy who instead of going with her in the ambulence, goes out for a coffee with the Inspector Chantal.
There are no vampires, no real blood and gore, most of the killings are off camera, and I find it a strange little film. Most of the film can be kind of slow detective work with Pierre running around trying to find clues to the murders (with the police practically ignoring him until the end). It is dark and moody, Gothic and the cinematography is very effective.
The truly great scenes in my opinion are the special effects when the Duchess transforms back and forth while on camera without any cuts right before our eyes. Bava isn’t a genius for nothing.
The version I am reviewing is the Widescreen Uncut Edition and not rated. Also of note: it is in Italian with English subtitles. Who ever did the subtitles was smart by doing them in yellow which stands out on the Black and White. Presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio it features biographies and filmographies, photo and poster gallery and various trailers for other Bava films and liner notes by Tim Lucas the leading authority on Mario Bava.
All-in-all you can definitely see and feel Mario Bava in this modest little film.