Here's the modest little goth number credited for inaugurating the Italian branch of a too-often dismissed phenomenon in genre cinema EuroHorror, a realm separate from the traditional American Universal movies or the British Hammer school. Peaking in the 1960s and early '70s, Italian, French, Spanish, and occasionally German low-budget studios churned out one opus after another, rarely seen in the U.S. outside of drive-ins, late-night Elvira-style TV shows, and the lower shelves of your better-stocked video stores. Many are beloved now, if at all, chiefly for their kitschy camp qualities. Some, though, have earned a serious post-mortem respect for their well-honed or atmospheric direction or push-the-envelope content that was unlike anything being made in the U.S. at the time. The Orson Welles of this sub-genre was versatile Italian director-cameraman-writer-editor Mario Bava, who gave us well known mini-classics such as Black Sunday (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan) and the anthology Black Sabbath (Boris Karloff's only vampire role). In 1956, for I Vampiri ("The Vampires") Bava took over directing duties from Riccardo Freda, who stormed off the set after a tussle with his producers two days before the end of the 12-day shooting schedule. Bava discarded or recrafted Freda's troubled work, and today aficionados declare that I Vampiri displays the beginnings of the skill and inventiveness that would make Bava one of the genre's most renowned directors.
I Vampiri's story is by no means a complex, so a synopsis risks giving too much away. Let's just say that when a serial killer known in the press only as "the Vampire" leaves young women's bodies turning up all over Paris, reporter Pierre Lantin (Dario Michaelis) is determined to get the scoop of his career. True to type, Lantin is something of a loose cannon and his persistent investigations serve only to annoy the police and infuriate his boss, who takes him off the case. Lantin, naturally, remains undaunted and so soldiers on by himself. By the last reel he discovers the connection between the beautiful Giselle (Gianna Maria Canale), whose aunt is the ancient and reclusive Duchess Du Grand, and the disappearance of the young women all of whom happen to share the same blood type. Add a creepy castle complete with cobwebs and hidden rooms with skeletons, a mad scientist's laboratory, a drug addict who kidnaps for his next fix, a means of everlasting youth that has a rather, um, draining effect on young women, and an unrequited love that spans two generations, and we get an effective little mood piece that's less Dracula and more "Dr. Frankenstein Meets Countess Bathory."
I Vampiri wastes no time getting to its story and maintains a brisk pace from start to finish, so there's plenty packed into its 78-minute running time. Because I Vampiri's "vampire" elements happen almost entirely off-screen and there's no conventional "monster" to speak of, it's a pretty sedate prelude to Bava's later work and, given the ghoulish excesses to come, Italian horror cinema and the U.K.'s Hammer films that began their popular retooling of the genre the following year. Of course, as a genre descriptor, the word "horror" has always been a large bucket. I Vampiri isn't so much a horror movie as it is a suspense thriller with science-fiction elements. But it does its job as an above-average prelude to a school of genre cinema that has earned its place in the hearts of devotees.
If you're a genre fan or a channel-surfing night-owl, it's possible that you've seen one of the bastardized video versions of I Vampiri under a different title. Never released in the U.S. in its original form until now, I Vampiri was heavily re-cut in 1960 for American distribution. It was padded with unfortunate new "spicy" footage featuring future "Munsters" star Al Lewis and released as The Devil's Commandment. Another version, reportedly containing nudity, went under the title Lust of a Vampire. As stated in this DVD's thorough liner notes by film historian and Bava scholar Tim Lucas, these patchwork versions are abominations that give no indication of the craftsmanship apparent in I Vampiri. And sure enough, there's genuine craft exhibited here. Indeed, with its crisp pacing, proficient (albeit uneven) camera work, and efficient storytelling, there are things here that some bigger-budget directors today could learn from.
* * *
Image Entertainment's DVD release of I Vampiri, an entry from Image's "Mario Bava Collection," offers a very good widescreen (2.35:1 anamorphic) black-and-white image that's clean and sharp. The audio is clear Dolby Digital monaural.
Supplements include a Mario Bava bio and filmography, a Freda filmography, a gallery of posters and stills (including shots from the mutated U.S. version), and, best of the bunch, trailers for other releases from Image's Bava series an ensemble of trippy period pieces that will leave you agog at shots of Joseph Cotten, Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, John Saxon, Boris Karloff, and other familiar faces earning the rent in deliciously bizarre Spaghetti Horror features. Snap-case.