Someone in a coat walks around the Italian countryside, sucking the blood of young women, turning them into his slaves through what rather looks like quality orgasms before the continued blood loss kills them. The country folk are convinced they are being terrorized by a vampire, but what they have of local authorities (including a doctor who can’t tell bite wounds from scratch marks, and does not think an epidemic of anaemia among young women is anything worth investigating further) isn’t interested in all that superstition, or is, like the police, curiously non-existent in the world of the film.
As luck will have it, a group of what the film calls ballet dancers after a definition that probably declares every dance taking place in a night club also to be ballet have come to a villa in the countryside to learn a new choreography and to provide Luca (Isarco Ravaioli), the nephew of the slightly creepy owner of the villa, an opportunity to romance his very-soon-to-be fiancée, the dancer Francesca (Tina Gloriani). The set-up suggests quite a feast for a hungry heterosexual male bloodsucker.
For a time, it’s all undisturbed dancing, lover’s talk and listening to uncle’s vampire tales for the girls, though. That is, until Francesca, her now fiancée Luca, and her best friend Luisa (Hélène Rémy) are surprised by a storm while out walking and have to seek shelter in a supposedly empty castle. There, they meet two curious people: countess Alda (María Luisa Rolando) and her servant Herman (Walter Brandi), both dressed in fashion a few hundred years out of style, and moving as stiffly as, well, living corpses.
While at the castle, somebody takes a good bite out of Luisa’s neck in walk-in wardrobe, turning her into a rather enthusiastic Renfield, and Luca finds himself all too happy to be invited to return to Alda later the same night. My, you’d think there’s something wrong with these people and their home…
I, like many a cult film fan, know and love L’amante‘s director Renato Polselli mostly for his perfectly insane, and wonderfully bizarre weird-out Gothic Black Magic Rites/The Reincarnation of Isabel, one among the weirdest films in a genre rich in weirdness. Compared to that piece of glorious incoherence, the film at hand is a rather logical and clear piece of filmmaking, even though every character – vampire or human – here does act completely and rather inexplicably foolish in at least one scene, and even the emotions of people not touched by the supernatural are turned to eleven all the time.
However, L*amante‘s narrative makes some basic sense, and I’m even willing to call some of the character motivations the script gives comprehensible, at least for some of the running time. Of course, this being an early Italian Gothic horror movie, I don’t really care all that much how much sense the script makes or rather doesn’t make, and am rather more interested in the film’s mood of irreality.
Polselli shows himself quite adept in the creation of this mood of thick irreality, with many a beautifully composed shot of shadowy castles and graveyards, shadows on the walls, and whatever other traditional way of showing the audience that it has stepped into a place where the membrane between this world and another is particularly thin one might ask for in this regard. We are again in the realm of a very dream-like idea of what filmmaking means here, where pacing is sometimes erratic (some may say slow), people don’t act like people generally do in real life, and where logic exists but only seems skewed to push the characters into the arms of the supernatural.
Apart from this, L’amante surprised me with how heavily sexualized the vampirism in it is already, and how much further even than Hammer’s Horror of Dracula it goes this early in the game, with so much writhing, breast-rubbing, and obvious orgasming from the female part of the cast that speaking of a “subtext” here would be utterly preposterous. In Polselli’s film, vampirism is all about sexual dominance, a fact that is even further emphasised (and pushed in the direction of the slightly perverse) by the ugliness of the (not exactly convincing) vampire make-up. It’s not difficult to see this as a film about unhealthy sexual power structures, particularly once we find the main vampire staking his former victims so that they can’t disturb his “mastership”(!), and learn he keeps his vampire lover locked up in their castle, only letting her feed indirectly by drinking his blood after he has gouged himself, which, in turn is the cause of his ugliness. Consequently, it’s hardly a surprise she attempts to use Luca to get rid of him and probably to find a more pliable partner, even though later developments in the film suggest the distribution of power between the two vampires might be a little more complicated, as it often goes in sexualized master/slave relationships.
Polselli’s treatment of these elements is as on the nose as imaginable for a film made in 1960, and really makes the film’s two supposedly titillating dance scenes look as if they were part of a different, much less interesting and daring movie made in a time when even often sexually quite more progressive and open European cinema had to use attractive women in skimpy outfits dancing horribly as the best it could do for titillation. On the other hand, the return to the second half of the 50s (in Europe, not the Code-dominated USA, obviously) in between actively messed up sexuality does further increase the film’s unreal mood.
Not that L’amante del vampiro really needed that, for it is already a wonderful example of Italian Gothic horror being weird without it.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?