L’Amante del Vampiro: The Vampire and the Ballerina

vampire and the ballerinaSomeone 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!?

悪魔が来りて笛を吹く: Devil’s Flute (1979)

The early years of post-war Japan. Private detective Kosuke Kindaichi (Toshiyuki Nishida) is asked to take a look at the curious affairs of the Tsubaki/Tamamushi family, whose upper class life is taking a turn for the worse. Eisuke Tsubaki (Noboru Nakaya) was the main suspect in a nasty poison murder and robbery affair, but after his name had already been cleared his body was found dead of suicide.

Curiously, nobody seems to have told Tsubaki he’s dead, and various members of his family see him appearing at the theatre, and in the windows of the family mansion. It’s gotten so disturbing, the family – not exactly a hotbed of sanity in any case – decides to hold a séance. Despite Kindaichi sitting in, there are even more curious things happening during the séance. Some of these, at least, look very much like products of human agency – ghosts, after all, are generally not wont to play records of their very favourite flute pieces when they could do some ghostly fluting of their own.

While Kindaichi seems rather at a loss to explain what and why is going on, someone (or is it something?) kills the doddering family gramps (Eitaro Ozawa) locked room style. With that, a series of unfortunate events gets rolling. Kindaichi starts on an investigation digging up family secrets and hidden sins, all the while trying to protect young, innocent, and pretty Miyako Tsubaki (Tomoko Saito) from the worst fall-out of the confounding affair.

Mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo’s character Kosuke Kindaichi has proven so popular in his native Japan that there’s a rather impressive number of movie and TV adaptations of the novels, with the detective so ingrained in parts of the popular imagination there’s even a rather popular anime, manga etc. cycle about the adventures of his grandson (the latter, it seems, pleasantly unauthorized by the author’s heirs).

Yokomizo is often (at least in the few parts of the English language internet talking about him at all) called “the Japanese John Dickson Carr”, and going by the Yokomizo adaptations I’ve seen – the translation situation of the writer’s novels into English or German being as bad as typical of nearly all Japanese writers of popular fiction before the advent of the light (that is to say, generally not very interesting) novel – this is one time when that sort of description actually fits. It’s not just that Yokomizo is as inordinately fond of locked room mysteries and impossible crimes as Carr, there’s a real kinship in the type of impossible crime the writers prefer, with many a well-researched accouterments of the gothic, the occult, the supernatural and the macabre used in a way that situates these mysteries well inside of the realm of the Weird, resulting in mysteries that need awe-inspiringly (and very often inspired) contrived solutions to be explained as natural instead of supernatural. Personally, I’m not much of an admirer of the “murder as a puzzle” approach of so-called “Golden Age Mysteries”, but when that approach is enhanced by copious amounts of séances, ghosts, vampirism, witchcraft and everything else that makes life worth living, I actually turn into something of a fan of the form, particularly when created by the kind of wit and imagination Carr and (again, going by the movie adaptations) Yokomizo brought to the table. Uncommon for the style, the “rational” explanations for the surely supernatural are generally not disappointing with these writers, for their use of sheer, overwrought yet often perfectly well thought out contrivances often reaches a point where their “rationality” seems even stranger than the supernatural would be.

Devil’s Flute‘s director Kosei Saito (that is at least his name when you follow the IMDB – the rather dubious subtitles call him Mitsumasa Saito, and I’m not fluent in Japan apart from knowing how to shout “Help! Ghost!”, so take your pick) does some rather extraordinary work with these nearly supernatural aspects of the plot, turning the parts of the movie concerning them into a Japanese approach to the Gothic, reaching intensity through artificiality, theatricality and dark and stormy nights. That aspect of the movie is – not exactly typical for the parts of this kind of film where the “rational” is supposed to assert itself – even strengthened once the identity and motivation of the killer become clear, for his or her reasons are completely founded on themes and ideas you’d look for in a Gothic novel. This impression is further enhanced by Saito’s decision to let his actors – apart from Nishida’s Kindaichi, who stands like a rock of basic human decency, understanding, compassion and rationality among the waves of melodramatic insanity surrounding him, undeniably close to Chandler’s idea of the private detective as a knight – go all out on their melodramatics, with emotional lives that seemingly start at being turned to eleven (and really, what less melodramatic human being would kill for this kind of bullshit, and in that way?), and no stops to be pulled out even in sight.

One could argue that Saito lays this sort of thing on a little too thick from time to time, but I’m not sure Devil’s Flute‘s plot would work at all if the director treated his characters’ emotional lives with a more subtle approach. It’s also quite obvious that Saito is able to enact a little less breathless melodramatic intensity when he wants to, for the film’s main emotional set pieces are broken up by scenes that create a very believable post-war Japan, a land of broken people standing right between utterly different approaches to look at life and reality, and utterly non-artificial landscape shots, embedding the Gothic melodrama of the film’s main plot in a much more conventionally bitter reality.

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!?

The Black Room (1935)

posterThe olden tymes, in an Austria situated right next to the countries of Universal’s backlot gothic Europe, where various accents, curious costumes and customs, and dubious temporality take on the appearance of a dream of the past. An old prophecy pronounces that the house of the de Berghmans will fall when the younger of two twins will kill his brother in the Black Room of their ancestral castle, repeating the founding sin of the house.

Consequently, reigning Baron de Berghman (Henry Kolker) is full of pronouncements of doom when his wife gives birth to twins. On suggestion of Colonel Hassel (Thurston Hall), one of those movie military members who never actually do anything military, de Berghman seals up the Black Room so that the prophecy will never be fulfilled.

Twenty years later, with the elder de Berghmans dead, the older of the twins, Gregor (Boris Karloff), is now the Baron. He’s not exactly well-loved by the local populace, what with his habit to indulge in his darkest impulses, and the surprising number of disappeared peasant daughters last seen with him. Gregor has also found a secret door to the Black Room, where he now hides the rotting proof of his indiscretions, but that particular of his vices remains unknown to everyone.

Gregor’s younger brother Anton (of course also Karloff) has spent the last fifteen years or so away from home, trying to put distance between himself and the family curse story, and living an actual life. But now, Gregor has begged for Anton’s return, and Anton – the nicest guy ever prophesied to become a murderer – can’t help himself but return.

Unfortunately, Anton’s return home is only the first step in the elder brother’s fiendish plan to get the increasingly lynch-mob-y peasants off his back, take Anton’s place, and marry a particularly boring girl named Thea (Marian Marsh), who just happens to be Hassel’s daughter. One hopes the prophecy will still come to pass one way or the other.

In his thirty year career, The Black Room‘s director Roy William Neill made a lot of movies for the b-movie (in the initial sense of the word) arms of various studios. Going by the parts of his filmography I’m acquainted with, Neill was a particularly deft hand at squeezing a lot of gothic mood out of comparatively little resources (not so little when compared to what directors working for something like PRC had available to them, obviously). Some years after the movie at hand, Neill would go on to direct most of the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies which were at their best whenever Neill indulged in the unholy cross of gothic and pulp sensibilities (something that happened quite a lot in print in the pulps at the time as well).

Unlike the Holmes movies, The Black Room has no Nigel Bruce as the worst Watson on screen (or imaginable) ruining everything. In fact, there’s not bumbling comic relief in the movie at all; if there’s any laughter to be had here, then it’s of the grim sardonic kind that appreciates the subtle humour of the way Karloff plays Gregor impersonating his good brother Anton.

In tone, The Black Room is pure gothic melodrama with a hint of the supernatural but also more than just a small hint of the idea that prophecies of murder of the kind presented in it could really turn out to be rather self-fulfilling. The script by Arthur Strawn and Henry Myers adds an additional flourish to its suggestions of psychological pressure shaping children’s minds by turning Anton, the twin who would actually have a reason to envy his brother andis prophesied to become a murderer, into the socially acceptable brother of the two, yet also hinting that knowledge of the dooming prophecy itself is at least in part responsible for Gregor’s nasty turn of character.

The film never discusses this theme, or the tension between the idea of fate as a an actual working power (in this case, the hand of fate is a dog, by the way) and the concept of self-fulfilling prophecies overtly. However, I think it is this tension that gives the film’s intensely melodramatic tone actual power, for without it, this would just be the usual gothic tale of fate (or rather Fate) indulging in its ironies.

On the visual front, Neill, in often inventive ways, emphasises the idea of twins being mirror images of each through the frequent use of mirrors. The titular Black Room’s walls, for example, are made of – now dusty – polished obsidian, heavily suggesting that Gregor very literally kills his better half in the Room, yet also that he is showing his full, corrupt self only there.

In The Black Room, mirrors are not only a way of seeing one’s true self (like in the scene where Gregor, shortly before his wedding, indulges in his old self for a moment in front of a mirror), they are also objects revealing one’s true self to others (see the earlier scene where Hassel realizes Gregor-impersonating-Anton isn’t Anton by accidentally watching him in a mirror). That’s pretty interesting and complex for what probably was a quickly shot entertainment without open aspirations to artistic merit.

On the other hand, Neill is rather good at that “entertainment” bit as well, turning out one of the faster paced gothic melodramas I know, a film where not a single second seems wasted on anything not pertinent to plot, theme, or mood – characters are of course archetypes. It’s quite an achievement in a genre tending to the slow and ponderous, and in an era of filmmaking where scenes of odious comic relief “breaking the tension” (why would you want that?) were nearly mandatory.

Neill – and everyone else behind the camera – does get quite some help with his efforts by Karloff – I can’t help but add “of course”. At first, the great man’s performance seems rather too on the nose, the brothers a bit too good or evil, respectively, even when you keep the very different ideas the 30s had about acting in mind, but further study reveals a layer of subtlety below the obvious that enables various elements the script only touches on, and gives these gothic stock characters dimensions beyond excellent scenery-chewing, suggesting some degree of psychological depths in the archetypes.

Karloff’s performance is emblematic for The Black Room as a film where much more is going on below a highly polished surface than it at first seems.

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!?