Monday, June 22, 2015

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)

I’ll admit that about three years after seeing The Vampire and the Ballerina (L’amante del vampire) the only thing I could seem to remember about it was the dance numbers. The movie had left a good impression on me for some reason, and I don’t think it was just because of the dance scenes, which were surprisingly sexy for 1960. During a recent re-watch the rest of the movie was like viewing it for the first time. It’s a fun, atmospheric Italian vampire piece from the gothic horror golden age, and after seeing a lot of those, they tend to get lost in the memory over time if you don’t re-watch them on occasion.

This one, along with the same years’ The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960), does have enough sexy gimmicks to help it standout in the mix; and what might also make it a little more interesting to some is that it is an early effort from Renato Polselli, someone whose particular brand of erotic, expressionistic madness touches my heart. Polselli’s cinematic characteristics seen in films like Delirium (1972) and The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973) aren’t quite as apparent in The Vampire and the Ballerina as they would be in Polselli’s Vampire of the Opera (1964) later on, but it’s still a charming attempt at a gothic horror film, in romantic B&W, that Polselli co-wrote with prolific screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi as well as Giuseppe Pellegrini.

In one of those small European villages that almost always seems to have a vampire problem, a company of young dancers are temporarily living together to train and prepare for a ballet production at a rich professor’s house. During the dark early morning hours, a servant is attacked in the woods by a vampire, and her screams alert the cow stable workers. Their arrival drives off the vampire, before they carry the swooned servant back to the house, awakening several attractive ladies in skimpy nightgowns with near childish personalities, which introduces the film’s alternate playful tone that is interspersed with the more traditional, sullen gothic horror elements.

The Vampire and the Ballerina has the added benefit of having actresses who are also professional dancers. It isn’t apparent at first, but, among the group of performers, Luisa (Hélène Rémy) and Francesca (Tina Gloriani) end up singled out as the leading ladies. It has to be said that Hélène Rémy is an awesome gymnast. There’s no stunt-double needed for her; she flips and spins like no one’s business, and she makes it look effortless.

It isn’t long before audiences are treated to a fun, flawless cabaret fused dance number that adds a degree of sexuality and naughtiness to the ballet that, despite seeming tame today, would likely have caused moralist at the time to faint. Jazz hands, bare legs, and seductive looks are displayed with panache.

There’s a particular dancer in black (Ombretta Ostenda) who stays in reserve, leaning against the fireplace, for the first part of the dance, like some kind of secret weapon; when she goes into action, the focal point shifts to her. This is supposed to be the girls’ practice session, but they obviously don’t need the practice since they nail it in one take. Ombretta melds in a little more with the other dancers during the sensual vampire inspired dance number in the second half of the film.

The dancing only makes up several minutes of the whole movie. There is a decent vampire story here that not surprisingly borrows a little from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, particularly Lucy Westenra and Dracula, with Luisa and the Dracula-like Herman (Walter Prandi – who’s been referred to as the Italian Dracula) being suitable counterparts but also with an added metaphor of substance addiction with regards to the female victims, sort of like when someone starts acting differently after secretly becoming addicted to some sort of drug.

There are two primary story locations separated by a stretch of woods, the mansion in the village where the girls practice dancing and a supposedly abandoned castle deep in the woods, both of which provide an important contrast between the present and past, with the sylvan castle setting being like a time machine.

When there’s an abandoned castle in the woods, it only stands to reason that it will be inhabited by a mysterious, beautifully siren-like countess (with epic cleavage), who appears to have stepped out of the middle ages and who also has a 400 year old portrait of her “direct ancestor” who bears her exact likeness (you know where this is going). Aside from having a fabulous medieval femme fatale look to her, Countess Alda (Maria Luisa Rolando) is also a sympathetic villainess, something that ends up giving the ending an ironically tragic feel. She and her “servant” Herman are a reclusive, enigmatic lot feigning to be misanthropists. The fact that they are vampires is obvious, but the nature of their game is rather grim.

An interesting part I like that is kind of subtle is when Francesca, concerned for the changed behavior of her friend, decides to spy on Luisa running off to visit Herman at the castle. The tables end up turning, with Luisa stalking Francesca through the forest instead, leading her into the castle and locking her in the dungeon. I almost didn’t notice, since I had a hard time distinguishing between the two characters for a while, as they look a little bit similar. The trip through the forest is slightly elongated and oddly enhanced with intrusive but mesmerizing jazz music. The movie does have plenty of classical style orchestra music endeavoring to make it scary, but in this scene Polselli opts for a more experimentally stylish approach. When they get to the castle it becomes quiet and seemingly more conventional, but the previous jazzy trip through the woods is just fantastic.

There’s a certain typicality to it, yet at the same time there are plenty of unexpected twists, especially considering what Herman does to the undead maid right after he promises her passage to the “kingdom of the dead” or the exact nature of the perverse relationship between Herman and the countess. The conclusion is enjoyably dramatic, and a little bit grotesque, with a convincing sense of pathos accompanying the villains’ demises. There ends up being an ambiguity as to which one of them is the evil one controlling the other, as well as if a certain main character lives or not. It’s true that the whole ballet deal is a gimmick, but the dance performances are inspired, professional, and totally memorable.

© At the Mansion of Madness

Sunday, May 24, 2015

5 Dolls for an August Moon (1970)

It’s amazing what Mario Bava could accomplish when he had free creative reign considering films like Lisa and the Devil (1973) and Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), but with 5 Dolls for an August Moon (5 bambole per la luna d’agosto), we have an example of Mario Bava as a director for hire, being pressured to return to the newly booming giallo genre he helped create with the previous entries Blood and Black Lace (1964) and The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963).

Admittedly, 5 Dolls is a more conventional affair in comparison to Lisa and Twitch and is obviously influenced by Agatha Christie’s seminal Ten Little Indians. I wouldn’t call it an adaptation but more of a self-conscious tribute with several trendy updates and sly nods to the source material. It turns out that Bava didn’t think highly of Ten Little Indians at all. When he was approached with the script, written by Mario di Nardo, and asked to direct the film he mainly accepted the job, despite some apprehension, because he would get paid up front, which disputes a previous notion I had that 5 Dolls was Bava’s own take on Christie’s classic novel. Making an Agatha Christie inspired giallo was the fashionable thing to do at the time, and, not being able to add much to the script, Bava directed a giallo he would end up having very little regard for, which is unfortunate because it’s one of my favorites. It also has one of my favorite soundtracks, by Piero Umiliani.

The story concerns ten characters, five of them women (most likely the titular 5 dolls), on an island. In the spirit of Ten Little Indians, with no way of presently leaving the island, they are killed off one by one by an unknown assassin whom they eventually realize has to be one of them.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Succubus / Necronomicon (1968)

During an interview included on the 2006 Blue Underground release of Succubus, Jess Franco spoke of a sixteenth century book he had come across on a bookshelf entitled Necronomicon that had belonged to a wealthy actor and film producer Pier A. Caminnecci, who had invited Jess over to his house to indulge in his extensive jazz collection, as the two were mutual jazz fans. Jess read a short story from this particular book that was so extraordinary he had to make it into a movie. Of course, this incarnation of the Necronomicon was most likely an imitation since this popular mythical tome came entirely from HP Lovecraft’s imagination in the early twentieth century, but it’s still fun to think that Jess may’ve been influenced by the actual ‘book of the dead’ written by the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred. Jess blended the material from the book with a script for a horror movie he had previously worked on, and the result is one of his most provocative films.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Interrabang (1969)

Considering movies like Barbarella (1968), Top Sensation (1969), and Russ Meyer’s Vixen! (1968), it would seem that the late ‘60s, the peak of the sexual revolution in the western world, was a turning point for erotic movies. Sexually charged films from this era were not only challenging censorship but were also challenging the monolithic wall of puritanical behavior that associated sex solely with marriage, which also mirrored the changing attitudes towards sex during the revolution.

With both “the pill” and penicillin on the market, pregnancy and STDs were less of an issue, and a woman’s sexuality outside of marriage was becoming more widely accepted, unlike before when it was more permissible for unmarried men to have sex, the so called “double standard.” Naturally, sex began to saturate the media, was used to sell products, and became a big part of mainstream culture. In addition, more and more married couples began experimenting with extramarital sex.

After the Hays Code was put to sleep in 1968 sexploitation cinema would really begin to thrive. With hopes of being free from the restraints of censorship, erotica would be used to explore new creative avenues of film making.

Inevitably, a lot of these so called sexploitation movies were taken to court, but a good way erotic filmmakers could get passed this was to not only make their movies sexually explicit but to make them intellectual and artful as well, which was particularly more common in foreign sex movies. On the VH1 documentary Sex the Revolution, John Waters said that in order to win in court you had to prove that a prosecuted sex film was socially redeeming, which would then make it acceptable.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Maniac Mansion (1972)

The Italian-Spanish co-production La mansión de la niebla / Maniac Mansion was the directorial debut of Spanish filmmaker Francisco Lara Polop, who had been previously working as a unit production manager for about ten years. He would also produce the Paul Naschy classics The Hunchback of the Morgue (1973) and Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973).

Made at the height of the Spanish horror boom, Maniac Mansion really is quite the fanciful gothic horror film with enough giallo and murder mystery influences to make it appealing to all Eurocult fans.

The fiery intro credit sequence is hypnotic and a nice mood setter, featuring a killer theme and a couple of chilling evil-witch cackles. The beginning of the story is a lot more grounded in reality with a somewhat unremarkable setup involving numerous shady characters, among which are a few familiar faces including Jess Franco regular Alberto Dalbés, before derailing into a foggy nightmare world, where things get a lot more interesting. Initially, you might start feeling better off just reading an Agatha Christie novel instead, but it does start to get good when all of the characters seemingly enter what feels like Silent Hill all of a sudden.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Man with Icy Eyes (1971)

Although commonly referred to as a giallo, Alberto De Martino’s The Man with Icy Eyes would have to be a rather atypical example of the genre, if not an ostensible one. It is set and filmed in a southwestern desert city called Albuquerque, NM (where I’m from, but we’ll get to that later). It doesn’t follow the violent murder mystery plot set forth by Mario Bava and popularized by Dario Argento, nor does it have any of the attractive gothic horror crossovers with ultramodern psychedelic fashions or drug-induced delirium. If anything, the film is more of a rustic detective story with a smattering of the crime thriller and a climax not entirely unlike that of Lucio Fulci’s One On Top of the Other (1969). Given the film’s mystery element, tense soundtrack, and early ‘70s era, and considering the presence of key players like Antonio Sabato (Seven Blood Stained Orchids 1972) and Barbara Bouchet (Don’t Torture a Duckling 1972), I can still dig the giallo tag. It also flirts with the supernatural, just a little, and there’s a colorful nude photography scene with Bouchet to give the film a minimally erotic edge.

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