Renato Polselli’s vampire rally ups the on-screen babe count first and provides horror thrills second, yet Ernesto Gastaldi’s screenplay introduces an interesting wrinkle or two to the bloodsucking genre. This new bilingual release is a good presentation of what for American chiller fans has been a long-absent title.
The Vampire and the Ballerina
1960 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 85 min. / L’amante del vampiro / Street Date May 22, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 27.99
Starring: Walter Brandi, Hélène Rémy, Tina Gloriani, María Luisa Rolando, Isarco Ravaioli, Gino Turini (John Turner), Pier Ugo Gragnani.
Cinematography: Angelo Baistrocchi
Film Editor: Renato Cinquini
Assistant Director: Ernesto Gastaldi
Original Music: Aldo Piga
Written by Ernesto Gastaldi, Giuseppe Pellegrini, Renato Polselli
Produced by Bruno Bolognese
Directed by Renato Polselli
We’re told that all of Europe jumped on a horror bandwagon with the success of the first two Technicolor Hammer gothic films, but it took two years for the Eurohorror wave to really get underway. Everything seemed to hit in 1960: Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage), Blood and Roses (… Et mourir de plaisir), Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio), Mill of the Stone Women (Il mulino delle donne de pietra). Those titles are the cream of the crop, but a couple more Italo pictures with lower-ranked pedigrees slipped in as well. Atom Age Vampire (Seddok, l’erede di Satana) is a collection of barely coherent ideas, executed with considerable verve. This little charmer from exploitation director Renato Polselli, The Vampire and the Ballerina (L’amante del vampiro), is the only feature that blatantly imitates the deft direction of Hammer’s Terence Fisher. The ballerinas are modern dancers that behave like a lowbrow Italian playboy’s notion of heaven — all under one roof and available for romance.
Somewhere in Europe, a dance troupe rehearses in a picturesque castle, overseen by the owner ‘the professor’ (Pier Ugo Gragnani) who regales them with an explanation of how traditional vampires seek their prey. As it happens, a local milkmaid has been killed under mysterious circumstances, and despite the typical fang marks on the jugular, those in charge dismiss any notion of vampirism. Dancer Luisa (top billed Hélène Rémy) is romantically connected to the dance master Giorgio (Gino Turini, billed as John Turner), and her best friend Francesca (Tina Gloriani) has hopes for marriage to Luca (Isarco Ravaioli), the professor’s son and future master of the castle. Various trips into the woods reveal to this foursome the residence of a mysterious Contessa Alda (Maréa Luisa Rolando) in a supposedly abandoned ruin on the hill. Alda appears to them on a staircase, in a dress at least 200 years old. All the Contessa has is an obedient servant, Herman (Walter Brandi), who can serve tea. Neither Luca nor Giorgio make much of this discovery, but Luisa is soon visited by a ghoulish caped monster. In no time at all Luisa is serving as the fiend’s catspaw, repeatedly setting up Francesca to be vampirized. Luca and Giorgio don’t take Francesca’s claims of a monster seriously until she’s in mortal danger.
It is said that 5,000 Italian wise guys of the 1950s became film producers as a way to sleep with women . . . the movies themselves were a secondary consideration. Although a more than competent production, L’amante del vampiro still seems an exercise in Italo exploitation. What? Trouble in the great hall? that’s a cue for all the dancers to come down in their nighties to see what’s going on. The men act like it’s no big deal, even when Giorgio and Luisa cuddle in their pajamas before bedtime (sleeping separately). Then Luisa and Francesca lounge around in a vaguely suggestive manner, making us wonder if there’s something going on between them as well. One is taller than the other, but they’re still rather similar in appearance; in poor bootleg copies I sometimes had difficulty telling Luisa and Francesca apart.
The Vampire and the Ballerina has some definite plusses. Angelo Bastrocchi’s B&W cinematography, finally seen in a good presentation, makes good use of disused villas and castellos, with perfectly serviceable gothic lighting for various spooky strolls down creepy corridors. Although it’s one of those movies where ‘a storm is coming’ and we see clear skies, we also get a few expressive scenes of trees blowing in silhouette, suggesting the coming of darkness. The castle’s crypt contains a set of particularly nifty stone coffins, that open as if by remote control. The wall-mounted candlestick holders are in the shape of human arms and hands, as in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.
On the other hand, outside of one leading lady there isn’t much in the way of good acting to be seen. Tina Gloriani looks genuinely frightened, even when the script repeatedly makes her do dumb things, like investigate the creepy castle yet again. Hélène Rémy is fine before being influenced by vampiric brainwaves, after which she’s transparently possessed. Nobody worries when her Luisa behaves in a blatantly suspicious manner, looking sideways as she mutters easily disproved lies. The two heroes are a total loss. Gino Turini is a repulsive ‘artistic type’ with a macho attitude, who wears ugly print shirts with his chest exposed. He and Isarco Ravaioli, hearing screams, do the old-fashioned slow burn ‘did you hear something?’ reactions.
The biggest surprise is that the visually ravishing María Luisa Rolando is a big zero in the key role of The Countess. Stuffed into a dress, she seems chosen for having an expansive bosom that blooms at the low neckline. Rolando has no aristocratic presence, and even dubbed in Italian her lines fall flat. Supposedly commanding and imperious, she just looks stiff and uncomfortable, even when enticing Luca with her undraped legs.
Most of Polselli’s direction is pedestrian, with few if any visual surprises. Those bits that are successful are lifts from other horror pix, such as a subjective buried-alive funeral scene from Vampyr, including the straight-up views of graveyard trees going by. Why do they put those windows in coffins, if nobody’s going to notice the open, blinking eyes of the terrified occupant? Polselli definitely thought a lot of Terence Fisher’s Dracula (Horror of Dracula), as he copies sequences shot-for-shot, mainly scenes of Luisa waiting in bed while leaves blow by her bedroom window. The vampire reveal happens across a cut, just like the entrances of Chris Lee.
The monsters aren’t half bad, although the actual vampire attacks are totally without finesse. When Luisa is manacled to a wall and nailed in the throat, it’s hard to read her reaction — is she overcome by sensuality, or simply bored? Her hand goes limp, yet she still stands up without aid. It all looks rushed. The vampire guys ‘n’ dolls sport prominent serpent-like fangs, and occasional angles on them must have been quite exciting in 1960. In Hammer films, when the gorgeous Valerie Gaunt, Carol Marsh, Andree Melly and Marie Devereaux bared their fangs, the moment was a supremely sexual, nasty-girl reveal, the kind that told parents, ‘this isn’t kid stuff.’ Polselli’s first vampire victim becomes an undead ghoul as well, with fangs that are quite startling . . . but not sexually charged.
Three screenwriters are credited (about three short of the Italian average!) but we’re told that the film’s rather good notion of vampires was invented by writer Ernesto Gastaldi, who would make his mark in a variety of interesting Italo horror and giallo efforts of the next fifteen years — Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory (Lycanthropus), The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Lo’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock), Horror Castle (La vergine di Norimberga), The Whip and the Body (La frusta e il corpo) and The Long Hair of Death (I lunghi capelli della morte).
(this is a spoiler of sorts)
In (presumably) Gastaldi’s construction, newly bitten women become vampire brides, as is expected. To keep a lid on his nefarious activities, the vampire fiend must execute these undead girls at the first opportunity. Gastaldi pulls a nice switch on expectations. We don’t know what the fiend’s relationship is to Countess Alda and Herman, but they certainly don’t seem innocent of what’s going on. Director Polselli’s prosaic, literal view of events precludes any notion that we’re watching supernatural phantoms. Had we been given any hints that they were ghosts, the idea of a castle occupied by nobles from two centuries ago might have some resonance.
As it turns out, the Countess and Herman are the infernal vampire couple, coping with an unequal slave-master arrangement. The Countess depletes Herman of blood, and he becomes the fiend with the horrible face. Draining a victim restores his good looks, but he then runs home to his Mistress, who drains him of blood to maintain her lily-white good looks. In a frustrating catch-22, the drained Herman once again looks like a gnarly-faced fiend, and the Countess rejects him for being ugly. He can’t win in this unfair relationship, but he claims that he does it for love. Since the two of them can order Luisa about telepathically, the Queen Bee Countess may have poor Herman under her seductive spell. Otherwise he might wander away and operate his own vampiric reign of terror, instead of doing all the difficult work while the missus stays home and reaps the benefit. Is this an Italian male’s resentful attitude toward marriage?
What luck that a covey of dancers has conveniently moved in to the castle next door. But we have no idea how such a predatory relationship could be maintained longer than a few weeks. With 200 years of practice you’d think the Contessa would have figured out something a little more secure.
“I knew Christopher Lee, I worked with Christopher Lee,
and you Walter Brandi are no Christopher Lee.”
The makeup appears to use fairly rigid masks, that are limited in effectiveness. The vampire fiend looks okay, despite lacking the height and strength of Christopher Lee. His chortle-laugh and vampiric bragging aren’t very imposing, either in Italian or English, so our vampire victims must make with a lot of ineffectual ‘I’m so terrified I can’t run away or kick you in the groin’ squirming. Director Polselli doesn’t seem concerned, as he’s more intent on focusing on Francesca’s heaving cleavage. The excuse is that he’s taking close-ups of the cross on her necklace.
The conclusion sees the cornered vampire couple bickering like magpies, with the Contessa blaming Herman. Herman begs forgiveness, and then denounces her when she starts playing up to Luca to save herself, claiming that she’s the innocent victim in the relationship. It’s almost funny, especially in Italian.
When it comes time for the vampire demise the Italians really apply the plagiarism powder. Clearly studying the Hammer original shot by shot, they mock up a pair of fake heads made of rubber and wax, with (we are told) pockets of sawdust. When Herman’s face sags bits of powder fall from the open wounds. It’s reasonably effective, but not helped by being filmed on an overcast day. There is no specific moment when the sun breaks free, so the contrast of night/day just isn’t there. (final spoiler) The frustrating ending leaves us with Luca and Giorgio wondering if Luisa, left lying somewhere below in the dirt, has survived, now that her vampiric oppressor is dead. We never find out . . . and our ‘final couple’ for the fade-out is two men.
In my imagination, Luisa’s lying down there in the dust, like Screwy Squirrel at the end of a Tex Avery cartoon, her head propped up on one hand and a disgusted look on her face, holding up a sign reading, ‘Anybody remember me? I’m the STAR of the show!’
The Scream Factory Blu-ray of The Vampire and the Ballerina is a pleasant surprise, a quality B&W transfer formatted to a correct 1:66 aspect ratio. Scream Factory did the transfer themselves, from an MGM-vaulted fine grain film element (technically not a print, as stated in Scream’s text). Scream had us worried for a while, when a text disclaimer pops up apologizing for the disc quality. Except for some scattered white dirt, the show looks to be in excellent condition in all respects. The sharp image at last lets us see every goofy gruesome detail in the disintegration scene.
Because no cuts were made for America (that’s what I was told at MGM, way back when) both the Italian and American soundtracks synch up nicely. The music by Aldo Piga offers some effective mysterioso pieces but the vampire attacks and various chases are scored with rather generic orchestral action music, a repeated cue. Unlike the more prestigious Euro-horrors of 1960, the music here isn’t memorable.
The two extras are a blurry 8mm digest version from United Artists home movies, and a lengthy still and ad art montage. The ad art features the memorable still that had us all curious at age ten, looking at Famous Monsters magazine. The monstrous fiend, in ugly-face mode, either kisses or bites María Luisa Rolando’s broad shoulder from behind. She scowls at him as his gnarly monster hands clutch at her breasts. It’s amazing that so many innocuous film advertising materials were ruthlessly suppressed, only for imagination-inspiring things like this to find their way into children’s magazines.
The film was bought by United Artists’ Lopert Pictures around the same time they purchased Eyes Without a Face for America, dubbed rather well and released on a double bill with Roger Corman’s Vincent Price picture Tower of London. This is borne out in the many drive-in ad mats included in Scream Factory’s ad art montage.
Going forward, Renato Polselli doubled down on the sex quotient for his next picture, titled L’ultima preda del vampiro (The Vampire’s Last Prey) but released here as the ‘adult’ Playgirls and the Vampire. We’ve yet to see an optimized original cut, but Polselli’s follow-up seems far less artful — the big draw were two or three nude shots, likely intended for export and cut out of original Italian showings. I did finally catch up with Polselli’s 1973 Black Magic Rites (Riti, magie nere e segrete orge nel trecento…) Despite some glowing reviews online, I found it to be an unwatchable bore.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Vampire and the Ballerina
Sound: Very Good +plus English and Italian
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 24, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson